Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - a few thoughts

I know that as this year ends, there is a veritable flood of missives about the year that is now passing - some by writers far more gifted than I. Although I have no intention of duplicating their efforts, I do wish to take a few moments to jot down some impressions that I have formed.

A little over a year ago, as 2010 was ending, a young man in Tunisia set himself on fire - an act of protest, both desperate and ultimately fatal, brought about by years of gross mistreatment from those enforcing an unjust economic and political system. That particular suicide sparked a wave of protests that would topple Tunisia's government. The flames fanned out to neighboring countries in what would become the Arab Spring: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc., with mixed results. In part inspired by the Arab Spring, protesters in the upper Midwest of the US began engaging in resistance (such as occupying statehouses, as in Madison, WI) in reaction to draconian anti-labor laws passed by reactionary legislators and governors who identified with the Tea Party (a movement associated with the resurgence of a largely nationalistic and sectarian right-wing that had characterized the previous year). These efforts also led to mixed success (some successful recalls of Republican legislators, and a near-victory by a candidate for a state Supreme Court seat identified as liberal who had previously been written off in Wisconsin; the repeal of anti-union laws in Ohio, for example). The wave of protests and resistance efforts reached the UK and the European continent over the summer. And then there was the Occupy movement which began during the waning days of the summer in late September and which is currently on-going. Finally, we have seen protests erupt in Russia as its citizenry become increasingly disillusioned with Putin and the ruling party.

In some cases it is still too early to assess the short-term success of these resistance movements, nor is it even possible to predict their long-term impact except perhaps in terms of very broad generalities. That there is an undercurrent of anger and despair throughout much of the world that is easily observable is hardly in itself remarkable. Our particular world is one still reeling from (and nowhere near recovering from) the economic crash that ended the previous decade, as well as several decades worth of the neoliberal phase of capitalism which has led to a redistribution of wealth to the wealthiest 1% at the expense of everyone else. Although conditions vary from nation to nation and region to region, there is a sense that the impact of neoliberalism (from austerity budgets to wage stagnation and unemployment) is generally universal.

The suddenness and rapidity with which the resistance movements of 2011 sprung up and spread caught many by surprise, including me. Clearly, the emergence of new social media played a significant role in the organization of resistance actions, as well as the communication of ideas across national and cultural boundaries. To say that the revolution as it were has been tweeted, Tumbl'd, and uploaded to YouTube via hand-held cameras and cell phones is hardly hyperbolic. If you haven't been following these new media, you've been missing out.

This is largely, although not exclusively, a youth-based set of movements. In the US, the Occupy movement seems to include a fair number who were starting to come of political age around 2008 - many of whom were disillusioned by the slightly kinder and gentler neoliberal policies of a President who had run on a platform of hope and change. The Millennial cohort is already quite distinct from those cohorts that preceded it, and distinct in ways that may well be harbingers of a leftist revival over the coming decade or two.

The movements themselves seem to have a number of family resemblances. Although there are variations among the movements with regard to the use of counter-violence, these movements are largely committed to using direct forms of action, and to remaining focused on a few key issues. Parallel to the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, many of these movements have adopted a "leaderless" model. That is not too surprising given the level of distrust of those in power or who covet power (such distrust is not just limited to the protesters, but is often quite endemic among the public at large, and such distrust is not new as even a cursory glance at the writings of members of the 1960s & 1970s New Left in the US and Europe will make abundantly clear).

These movements have a rather international scope, and have been noteworthy for being rather secular and liberal or leftist in rhetoric, as opposed to advocating some nationalistic or religious sectarian stance. We have not been witness to any sort of sustained secular and at least loosely leftist set of movements since at least the late 1960s. In fact, over the last several decades the big story arc has been - other than the supposed inevitability and permanence of neoliberal capitalism and the "end of history" - the rise of nationalist and fundamentalist religious movements. Ours has been an age of often violent counter-revolutions and tribalism. Although efforts to re-establish a secular leftist and internationalist dialog have been made before since the 1990s, these have often either been limited in scope (the WTO protests of the late 1990s & early 2000s come to mind) or to location (the Zapatistas, although there has been some success in creating Zapatista-inspired organizations across the globe, and the name and image of Marcos - and to a lesser extent the late Ramona - has become an established part of at least leftist consciousness. This year, now passing, feels somehow different. These movements seem to readily reference one another, and seem to be establishing something more sustained.

For the first time in a long time, I have at least some hope that nationalistic and sectarian turn of the previous few decades has at least reached its peak, and a serious push-back is now a real possibility. I don't pretend to know what the future will bring for 2012 and beyond, but I don't doubt that resistance movements of this past year will lead to at least some successes (along with the inevitable defeats) and - at bare minimum - needed reforms over the longer term. In the US, we have actually made Americans conscious of the term capitalism (which had become so insidious as to need no mention) for the first time in a long time, and have reintroduced class consciousness as an important concept (the 99% versus the 1%). We are also witnessing the reintroduction of active forms of dissent as viable - this isn't the sort of passive "netroots activism" of the 2000s, although it does share a reliance on the prevailing new technological means in order to get the word out and to get real human bodies to tangible physical locations. We are also witnessing a reminder that governments are dependent upon the consent of their people for legitimacy, and that in the absence of reforms by parliamentary means, extra-parliamentary means become the desired mode of political discourse.

I'll have more to say as time permits. In the meantime, there is much work to be done.

In solidarity.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eric Hobsbawm on 2011: ‘It reminds me of 1848...’

"It reminds me of 1848 - another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time."

For those who once crowded Tahrir Square and are now worried about the fate of their revolution, he has a word of comfort.

"Two years after 1848, it looked as if it had all failed. In the long run, it hadn't failed. A good deal of liberal advances had been made. So it was an immediate failure but a longer term partial success - though no longer in the form of a revolution."
Read the rest. (h/t Pathologically Polymathic)


I am going through the painfully slow process of going through the links, and checking out what still works, and what has ceased to function. I've been purging a number of broken links, and I've begun adding a few newer blogs that I thought were cool. These days, I spend more time in places like Tumblr, and will be adding a few blogs from there as time goes on. In the meantime, stay tuned. I may not do as much traditional blogging as I once did, but I do try to keep things fresh. To those of you who keep on dropping by here, I just want to say thanks.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ron Paul

The Angry Arab News Service/وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب: Ron Paul: This should be made clear. Ron Paul should not be supported by Arabs or by supporters of the Palestinians.  He may have said things against Israel (although his spokesperson yesterday asserted to the New York Times that he is a "friend" of Israel), but he is a racist and a reactionary and a homophoebe. This is another example that we can't apply one litmus test only to candidates and people.  A critic of Israel who hates blacks and gays (or who hates Jews for that matter and I don't know if Paul is anti-Semitic or not) is not a friend we need in the pro-Palestinian community.


Second, the threat of fascism was far more than merely political. What was at issue - and nobody was more aware of this than intellectuals - was the future of an entire civilisation. If fascism stamped out Marx, it equally stamped out Voltaire and John Stuart Mill. It rejected liberalism in all its forms as implacably as socialism and communism. It rejected the entire heritage of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment together with all regimes sprung from the American and the French Revolutions along with the Russian Revolution. Communists and liberals, confronted by the same enemy and the same threat of annihilation were inevitably pressed into the same camp. It is impossible to understand the reluctance of men and women on the left to criticise, or even often to admit to themselves, what was happening in the USSR in those years, or the isolation of the USSR's critics on the left, without this sense that in the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were, in profound senses, fighting for the same cause. Not to mention the more obvious fact that each needed the other and that, in the conditions of the 1930s, what Stalin did was a Russian problem, however shocking, whereas what Hitler did was a threat everywhere. This threat was immediately dramatised by the abolition of constitutional and democratic government, the concentration camps, the burnings of books, and the massive expulsion or emigration of political dissidents and Jews, including the flower of German intellectual life. What the history of Italian fascism had hitherto only hinted at now became explicit and visible to even the most short-sighted.

~~ Eric Hobsbawm, How To Change The World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (p. 268)

There are very few historical instances in which liberals (or what we would now call progressives in current US parlance) and leftists have found common ground. In the case discussed above, Hobsbawm starts by discussing why liberal and Marxist intellectuals lent support - often tangible - to the defenders of Spain's Republic and against the Falangists during the Spanish Civil War, and places that in the context of the rather violent rise of fascist regimes on the European continent.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The more things change...

A while back, I picked up a book called Everybody Talks About the Weather...We Don't - a compilation of Ulrike Meinhof's columns during her tenure at konkret prior to her going underground with the RAF. Whatever one may think of her place in history, there is little doubt that she was a sharp writer who had a keen eye for the events that were unfolding during the 1960s. In particular, her observations about how the media organs of the 1% of her nation behaved are ones that could easily be made today. In 1968, she wrote a column in which she layed out how the mass media (whether conservative, centrist, or left-leaning) implemented "strategies of concealment" to deal with the major protest movement of the day (a movement that was part of an international New Left that was in many respects a loose equivalent to some of the Occupy and Arab Spring movements that we've seen emerge this year). The strategies can be described as follows:

1. Petty bourgeois respectability as a value in itself

2. The innocence of the system

3. The order of things is in order - the others are confused

4. Engagement - but of a different kind

Although she was addressing the political conditions in late 1960s West Germany, in which the government was attempting to justify its increasingly repressive approach to civil liberties and against a backdrop of violence largely against protesters, much of what she had to say then is replaying itself with regard to the Occupy movement over four decades later.

Starting with the strategy of "respectability as a value in itself", all we need do is to look at how our corporate-controlled media outlets have portrayed the behavior of the Occupiers. There is a reason why the more overtly right-wing sensationalistic outlets have focused on the occasional occupier who has taken a dump on a squad car, or some equally outrageous behavior; or why the more centrist and liberal outlets - when daring to even mention Occupy - focused on the "unkempt" appearance of these impromptu tent cities that sprung up in many metropolitan areas across the US; or why all media outlets focused on those within the Occupy camps who appeared as overtly counterculture as possible.

The "innocence of the system" can and is portrayed at least a couple ways. One is to play down the abuses committed by police (e.g., pepper-spraying unarmed passive protesters) either by writing them off as bad apples or by blaming the victims. The other way is to portray our increasingly "privatize or perish" austerity system as fair - appealing to a mythology going back to the days of Horatio Alger.

As for "the others being confused": if I had a nickel for every time I either read or heard a politician or pundit from all "respectable" perspectives that they couldn't "understand" Occupy's point, or accusing Occupy of being confused and unfocused, it would hardly be hyperbolic to say that I would now be one of the 1% myself.

And of course we saw many opportunists attempting to co-opt the movement - the "engagement of a different kind". Seems there's an election year coming up, and both GOP and Democratic partisans wanted to get their grubby hands on Occupy, thus focusing the activists' energies on election or re-election campaigns rather than the issues that originally triggered Occupy. Thus far, efforts to persuade Occupy to "occupy the voting booths" or to get behind the Pope of Hope or old Racist Ron Paul or any of a number of other crooks have been in vain.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Another Paulbot Shows His True Colors

Tea Party darling and libertarian Jules Manson just called for the assassination of President Obama and his children on Facebook, but I’m sure it was just a ‘misspeak’ (wink wink).

In an unnerving display of racism and violence today, this Ron Paul supporting libertarian, who ran for a seat on the City of Carson’s City council last march, and thankfully failed, wrote:
“Assassinate the fucken nigger and his monkey children”

What’s a fucken? Grammar ‘misspeaks’ aside, behold the world of Jules Manson (no relation to Marylin Mason, who apparently is a kinder, gentler person):

The rest is over at FreakOutNation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Film The Police

Via The Sideshow


Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this any more. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too.

Ulrike Meinhof (from her 1968 column, "From Protest to Resistance")

They don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is ther independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves andd our children.

But today we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

EZLN (January 1, 1994, "First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle")

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave.

To be declared innocent in a country where the rule of law means nothing, where we have undergone a corporate coup, where the poor and working men and women are reduced to joblessness and hunger, where war, financial speculation and internal surveillance are the only real business of the state, where even habeas corpus no longer exists, where you, as a citizen, are nothing more than a commodity to corporate systems of power, one to be used and discarded, is to be complicit in this radical evil. To stand on the sidelines and say "I am innocent" is to bear the mark of Cain; it is to do nothing to reach out and help the weak, the oppressed and the suffering, to save the planet. To be innocent in times like these is to be a criminal.

Chris Hedges (September 30, 2011, "The Best Among Us")

Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, and has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally. #ows is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to fight back against the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.

The occupations around the world are being organized using a non-binding consensus based collective decision making tool known as a "people's assembly".

Occupy Wall Street (2011, "About Us")

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Philip Glass at Occupy Wall Street protest

This was from a few days ago. I noticed it was mentioned on a friend's blog late last week, and bookmarked it. Here's what Alex Ross, the person who filmed it, had to say:
From an Occupy Wall Street protest at Lincoln Center, on Dec. 1, 2011. A performance of Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera has just ended, and in the first three minutes of the video protesters try to get operagoers to ignore the police, walk down the steps, and join the demonstration. Then, after 3:00, Glass recites the closing lines of his opera, which come from the Bhagavad-Gita: "When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again."
There is a long history of artists of various stripes providing their support for various social movements. In New York City, on that particular evening, it was noted minimalist composer Philip Glass, along with a couple long-time respected fixtures of the more avant-garde echelons of the popular music world, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson - all musicians whose work I've respected for many more years than I would want to acknowledge.

You can read the rest of Alex Ross's blog on the event here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I see race and IQ nonsense is rearing its ugly head yet again

It seems like every few years some conservative pundit has to come along and makes some baseless assertion about race and IQ. About four years ago it was William Saletan. This year it is Andrew Sullivan. Others who have more time and patience than I have already done a pretty good job handling the latest nonsense, and I don't wish to merely parrot what they said. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a solid response:
With that said, Andrew's ahistorical approach to race and intelligence has always amazed. The contention, for instance, that "research is not about helping people; it's about finding out stuff," may well be true in some limited sense. But it's never been true, in any sense, of race and intelligence. In the 19th century helping out white people (however that is defined) was very much the point of intelligence research. Into the early 20th century, the rise of eugenics was equally linked the field to the advancement of "people." Even the intelligence theorists whom Andrew, himself, has advanced over the years are motivated by a desire to presumably help people, if only in the form of deciding how a society should expend its limited resources. 

Advocates of the "p.c. egalitarianism" theory, such as Andrew, evidently believe that the notion that black people are dumber than whites is a cutting edge theory, as opposed to a long-held tenet of slave-holders and white supremacists. They present themselves as bold-truth tellers who will not bow to "liberal creationists." In fact they are espousing firmly established views that date back to the very founding of this country. These views did not emerge after decades of failure of social policy. Indeed they picked up right where their old advocates left off; within five years of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Arthur Jensen was convinced that black people were intellectually addled.

Perhaps all of that is irrelevant. Perhaps there really is a genetic relationship between the darkness of skin and the potency of neurons. (Only for "Africans," mind you.) Maybe the sterilizers and the slave-traders were wise beyond their years. And perhaps James Watson really was at his scientific best when he countered the claims of Andrew's p.c. egalitarians by asserting that  "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." It's certainly possible that the tendency of those who advance this theory to appear in proximity to modern racists is a coincidence, and that its invokers really are modern Galileos persecuted merely for "trying to find out stuff."

But I think if Andrew is going to advance a theory of conspiratorial political correctness he owes it to us to sketch its outlines and effects in some actual detail. He clearly believes the subject to be important. He should treat it with more care.
 I love a valid point offered along with a healthy dose of snark.

Dr. X goes on to point out that contra Sullivan, there is a ton of contemporary research on intelligence. The good Doctor also makes a point that bears repeating: if research proposals are going unfunded it's more due to a greater number of researchers competing for whatever grant dollars do exist. Insiders in the social and behavioral sciences will probably tell you that the competition for grants across the board has historically been competitive - in an age of budget cuts and austerity, the odds of obtaining grant funding for a proposed study have become ridiculously long. Finally, Dr. X seems to be making the point that the topic of intelligence is much more complex and subtle than simply taking a total IQ score and correlating it with some other factor. That is a point that, too, bears repeating.

My interest is perhaps more historical, and I've periodically discussed IQ research within the context of the eugenics movement. Arthur Jensen - the psychologist on whom Sullivan tends to be fixated - is notorious as much for being the recipient of grant funding from a pro-eugenics organization with neo-Nazi roots (The Pioneer Fund) as he is for his claims about IQ and race.

Going back to one of the earlier flare-ups about eugenics, here are some comments I made back in 2007:
Obviously there is racism in Britain too, but I find that there is also an intolerance for intolerance. And that is why I believe James Watson, despite years of espousing his eugenics mush in America, met his El Alamein in Britain. As you probably know, the American biologist and Nobel laureate recently stated that Africans are less intelligent than whites - it's in the genes - and, to its credit, the Science Museum in London cancelled a talk Watson was to give. By contrast, many Americans still defend the man.
nerdified link

As I mentioned earlier, there was something eerily eugenicist in Watson's remarks. It doesn't take much digging to find that Watson has plenty of academic kindred spirits. The differential reactions of British and US audiences to Watson's racist statements (as he does have a bit of a history) also didn't surprise me. One thing to note, if one looks at the history of the eugenics movement (Edwin Black's book, War Against the Weak is a good place to start), is that although the person who coined the term and founded the first society devoted to eugenics was British (Sir Francis Galton), the movement thrived primarily in the US and later Germany. The American eugenics movement was well-organized, well-funded, and its proponents possessed a missionary-like zeal that simply was lacking in the UK.

As I noted a few weeks ago:
Eugenics was defined as "the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally" (cited in Guthrie's Even the Rat Was White, 2004). The intellectual roots of Galton's eugenics goes back arguably to Plato's Republic. Galton eventually went on to establish the Eugenics Society of Great Britain in the early 1900s and shortly thereafter began publishing a journal called the Eugenics Review. Around the same time the American Eugenics Society was founded. A number of these eugenics advocates gravitated toward the early IQ tests - which were used and abused to support their thesis that those of Western European stock were superior to those of other races. By arguing that individuals of African descent (as well as those of American Indian and Mexican-American descent) were intellectually inferior, they could advocate various restrictive laws regarding marriage between races, as well as the legalization of involuntary sterilization of those deemed "unfit."

The eugenics movement was largely discredited over time, namely due to the shoddiness of much of the research purported to support its thesis, as well as legitimate questions regarding the definition and measurement of intelligence. On the former, it became quite apparent that individuals who didn't share the same educational and socioeconomic advantages and experiences of a predominantly white upper class and upper middle class would be at a disadvantage from the get-go. Also, it turns out, as Guthrie (2004) points out, that cultural factors could influence test results - for example kids from the Dakota tribe considered it impolite to answer questions in front of others who might not know the answer. The question of what actually composes intelligence is also rather thorny - Howard Gardner has perhaps come as close as anyone to developing a comprehensive theory of multiple intelligences; and his theory goes to underscore the limitations of standard IQ tests (which typically measure spacial and verbal ability and little else; see also research on intelligence by Robert Sternberg).

Virtually all eugenicists supported compulsory sterilization for the "unfit"; some supported castration. Indeed, compulsory sterilization laws became commonplace in the US during the first couple decades of the 20th century. The last prominent group to promote and practice eugenics was the Nazi regime in Germany. Their reign of genocidal terror is well-documented. It should be mentioned that US eugenicists during the 1930s looked at the Nazi approach to eugenics with a mixture of admiration and envy.
Indeed one US eugenicist organization that managed to survive the decline and fall of the Third Reich was the Pioneer Fund. I've mentioned the Pioneer Fund before. Its founder (Draper) and its first president (Harry Laughlin) were well-known for their racist views and advocacy on behalf of eugenics. The academicians who have received Pioneer Fund grants are, interesting, to say the least:
Nobel Laureate William Shockley (1910-89), a physicist at Stanford best known for his "voluntary sterilization plan," received $188,710 between 1971 and 1978. Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist focusing on race since 1966, got more than $1 million in Pioneer grants over three decades.

In his famous 1969 attack on Head Start — the early education program that aims to help poor children — Jensen wrote in the prestigious Harvard Education Review that the problem with black children was that they had an average IQ of only 85. No amount of social engineering could improve that performance, he claimed, adding that "eugenic foresight" was the only solution.

Roger Pearson, whose Institute for the Study of Man has been one of the top Pioneer Fund beneficiaries over the past 20 years ($870,000 from 1981 to 1996), provides the clearest indication of the extremists supported by the Fund.

Pearson came to the United States in the mid-'60s to join Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby. In 1965, he became editor of Western Destiny, a magazine established by Carto and dedicated to spreading far-right ideology.

Using the pseudonym Stephan Langton, he then became editor of The New Patriot, a short-lived magazine published in 1966 and 1967 to conduct "a responsible but penetrating inquiry into every aspect of the Jewish Question." Its articles carried such titles as "Zionists and the Plot Against South Africa," "Early Jews and the Rise of Jewish Money Power" and "Swindlers of the Crematoria."

Pioneer support for all the groups linked to Pearson between 1975 and 1996 amounted to more than $1 million — nearly 10% of total Pioneer grants in that period.

In more recent decades, University of Western Ontario psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton has replaced Jensen as the top individual beneficiary of Pioneer largesse, receiving more than $1 million since 1981. Rushton argues that behavioral differences among blacks, whites and Asians are the result of evolutionary variations in their reproductive strategies.

Blacks are at one extreme, he claims, because they produce large numbers of offspring but offer them little care; at the other extreme are Asians, who have fewer children but indulge them. Whites lie somewhere in between.

Despite Rushton's controversial theories — including positing an inverse relationship between brain and penis size — he has been embraced by the scientific mainstream. He has been made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a member of the American, British and Canadian psychological associations.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted, the American academic climate is quite receptive to eugenicist viewpoints:
In much of academia, a pillar of the racist argument has become the accepted view. Polling a large sample of mainly academic experts anonymously for a 1988 book, Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman found that 53 percent believed IQ differences between blacks and whites have a genetic component.

Only 17 percent thought the differences between the racial groups' scores on intelligence tests were strictly environmental in origin. Another 28 percent thought that there was insufficient data available to make a judgment.
Going back to Farley:
What's more alarming is that, in America as opposed to Britain, it is more likely that the academic who criticises racism will be dealt the punishing blow and not the academic who promotes it.

For instance, in 2002, I criticised the erection of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the city where I then lived, Nashville, Tennessee. Forrest was not only a Confederate general who, according to Harper's Weekly and other contemporaneous sources, massacred black prisoners at Fort Pillow during the American Civil War, he was a former slave trader and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I pointed out in an essay in the local newspaper that Forrest and his fellow night-riders, had they performed these same actions today, would have been convicted of treason and crimes against humanity, and hence would have faced the same penalty as their ideological descendants at Nuremberg. Neo-Confederate organisations with over 30,000 members, and local and national media, said I was advocating genocide against whites.

I received a few dozen death threats, but that didn't stop my employer, Vanderbilt University, from calling me the extremist. As Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee admits in the book University Presidents As Moral Leaders, "[a]rdent devotees of the Confederate cause demanded Farley's job ..." and, "[e]ventually I had to write an editorial piece ... covering Professor Farley's hellraising" and "clean up in his wake".

Vanderbilt spokesman Michael Schoenfeld wrote that my criticism of the Klan leader was "rightly offensive to, and rejected by, most people" without, however, specifying whether he had found even one black person who was offended by my statements, and without specifying what statements in my essay, if any, were factually incorrect. Vanderbilt and the media, from the Washington Times to Fox News with Brit Hume, with the sole exception of The Nation's John Nichols, failed to criticise in any way Nathan Forrest, slave-owners, the Confederacy, or the groups that had targeted me. (A typical one of the threats sent to me read: "Hey, communist nigger monkey!!! Another worthless jigaboo hasn't killed your worthless ass yet? Too bad. I hope someone rapes and kills your white, race-traitor wife and/or girlfriend as well ... Heil Hitler!!! Hail the Reich!!! Death to all niggers and all other nonwhites!!!")

I learned later through The Chronicle of Higher Education that Princeton historian James McPherson had received similar treatment in 1999 for discussing what he called the "thinly-veiled support for white supremacy" of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But the point is that, in the United States, this kind of persecution is possible, and can be career-killing when the "offender" is African-American. In contrast to what just happened to James Watson in Britain, the losers in America are generally not the racists, but the anti-racists.
White supremacy is very much alive and well in the US - both inside and outside the academy.
Finally, I just want to reiterate my skepticism regarding the validity of claims made by the likes of Sullivan and his apparent hero Jensen regarding race and intelligence:
But...what if the methods used to "prove" the eugenicist hypothesis are dodgy? What if it turns out that it is far from clear as to what IQ tests actually measure? That brings me to the third item: the so-called inherited group differences in IQ are far from cut-and-dried. There has been a great deal of debate regarding how to measure intelligence, and just how applicable standard IQ tests are to everyday existence. In psychology, research on everyday cognition has been something of a cottage industry since the 1980s. That body of research, much of which is cross-cultural in nature, consistently suggests that the relationship between IQ scores and a wide variety of abilities is fairly minimal at best. I would suggest that one look into the work of psychologists such as Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner to get a feel for what some of this research is about. For a better discussion of the methodological problems regarding IQ and endeavors to link IQ to hereditary race-based differences, I'd suggest one check out statistician Cosma Shalizi's blog, which has several excellent (albeit hardly easy reading) posts: Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ; g, a Statistical Myth; and In Which I Demand That Slate Refund My Subscription.

The bottom line: contrary to whatever eugenics apologists would have us believe, our understanding of human intelligence is anything but cut-and-dried.

Responsible journalists and columnists understand that eugenics-based "research" should have been swept into the dustbin of history ages ago. Sometimes an assertion is unpopular because it has been examined and found to be wrong. Further, an assertion based on shoddy research that has provided intellectual cover for incredible amounts of human suffering (just one example here - not to mention other forced sterilization programs, the Nazi Holocaust, etc.) deserves to be ridiculed.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

One of my many problems with Ron Paul

Gail Collins from the otherwise bleak New Pravda:
Basically, Paul seems to want to revert to the 18th century, when every bank could set its own monetary policy and every community ran its own schools — presuming, of course, the community wanted to pay for them.

“The founders of this country were well educated, mostly by being home-schooled or taught in schools associated with a church,” he reasons. Those of us who were not born in the gentry could presumably go back to sowing and reaping hay.

As I see it, Ron Paul is a candidate who often strikes me as explicitly rejecting modernity.I get why some avowed "progressives" really liked Ron Paul at the height of the War on Terra - he does (for probably different reasons than I) often hit the right notes on getting out of all these damned wars, ending torture, and he did seem to be thoroughly against all of the Homeland Insecurity nonsense that emerged in the shadow of September 11, 2001. Heck, I even found that a breath of fresh air at the time. But, as we all know, we can't just cherry pick the facets of a candidate we like and pretend the rest don't exist. Rep. Paul is someone whose economics probably seem more fit for the pre-industrial-era Colonial period, and whose affinity for Ayn Rand would only further reinforce the "everyone for himself" individualism that already pervades our culture. Then there's his love of the Old Testament scriptures and patriarchy. Why anyone who even remotely associates with "the left" would find any of this attractive is beyond me.

Look, I get dissatisfaction with the two party system which is rotten to the core. But I'd just as soon hold out for better than what Ron Paul and his followers are prepared to offer. We can do better than advocate for a return to mercantile-era capitalism.

Friday, November 25, 2011

I love the smell of oligarchy in the morning

Jonathan Schwarz sez:
I'm Thankful We Have Such a Cohesive International Oligarchy

That's what I'm thankful for today. Sure, everybody knows that Gamal Mubarak, Hosni's son and heir apparent, started his career as an investment banker for Bank of America and then set up his own private equity fund. And it's old news that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi takes time out from pepper-spraying American students to assist in the crackdown on Greek students. But did you know that Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, was a mergers and acquisitions investment banker at JP Morgan, and about to start on an MBA at Harvard, before she married her husband Bashar?

You really can't run a coordinated international attack on 99% of humanity without having all the attackers be buddies from way back.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Prayer by William S. Burroughs

Not sure if I've shared this one before, but it's one that I've found continues to resonate with me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blogs I'm Feeling

Truck Driving and Socialism

Revolutionary Flowerpot Society (see especially the post, A Critique of Ideology-phobia, which is a topic I occasionally discuss - albeit less eloquently - every once in a while here)

Friday, November 11, 2011

“Divide and conquer” strategies are the enemy – a message to #OWS

I may not blog much these days, but I do keep up with the current comings and goings. The Occupy Wall Street movement is one of the most exciting developments of my increasingly long life. The movement has clearly resonated with substantial portions of the population, and for good reason. It is precisely because the movement has resonated that we have seen, as Pink Scare noted a few weeks ago, efforts by those representing the 1% to try to drive wedges between the rest of us. At this point, the efforts to exploit potential points of division have been myriad: physical appearance, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, gender, sexual orientation, and so on have provided grist for the mill. Thus far, efforts at dividing and conquering this new left have been failures. I can only hope that remains to be the case.

If I had a word of advice for this new left it is this: a healthy dose of pragmatism will do you good. Look – the left you are inheriting has, for the last several decades, been fragmented. I’ve seen more battles fought over purity than I would ever want to recount. Don’t fall into that trap. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter if your comrades are sufficiently (by your particular standards) sensitive to whatever issue or issues drive you to action. It really does not matter if your comrades subscribe to exactly the same ideological position as you. When it comes to the harm done by the current neoliberal capitalist regime, we are generally on the same page – sufficiently enough to work together. As I think back to my youth, I can think of many times where had I walked out on an organization because I thought the leadership was too Trotskyite, or Anarchistic, or whatever, I would have missed out on some great opportunities to contribute to efforts that eventually led to some positive changes in my particular community. Don’t worry about ideological purity. It’s bullshit. Also, don’t worry about perfection. I expect that any movement will do things I disagree with and will make mistakes. We are human, and we are fallible. The acid test for any movement is whether its members can learn from their mistakes as they go along. Expectations of perfection are bullshit. Stay pragmatic. Adapt. I think we could all learn a few things from the relative successes of a number of relatively recent leftist movements in the Americas – the Bolivarians and the Zapatistas come to mind. They’ve had their successes largely by adapting their ideologies to the needs of their particular populations. In essence, they’ve taken a relatively populist approach to their particular political circumstances. Finally, don’t be afraid of power. There’s a difference between having a healthy respect for power, and a love of power. Without some tangible power, your ability as a collective to effect the changes you want will not happen. It might not hurt to study how other leftist movements managed to gain and use power. Not all of what has been used successfully in the past will apply to the present, but enough of what movements from the Bolsheviks to the Bolivarians have done will at the bare minimum offer guidance for how this new left might proceed. Finally, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Great political and social changes have rarely occurred in short order. Don’t expect a lot of immediate gratification. Enjoy the successes you do experience, and learn from your setbacks. So far, you’re off to a great start. Know that in addition to all those who are on the streets and in the camps with you, there are many more who are supportive of your aims. You’re not alone.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A different tribute to the great Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the evening of the date on which we dedicate the MLK Jr. Memorial, I want to offer a remembrance of my own. Over four decades ago, Dr. King presented the US with his noteworthy anti-Vietnam War speech. The speech, which was indeed a classic - and one from which Americans have yet to learn much of anything - was part of a transformation in his thinking that occurred during the last year of his life. From Ahmed Shawki's book Black Liberation and Socialism(pp. 200-204):
King began to see the connections much more clearly between racism at home and racism abroad, in particular between the economic inequities at home and the war budget. King also started to rethink his understanding of violence. He was keenly aware that the growing urban unrest in the North was an expression of the frustration and impatience that existed among Blacks - and a corresponding sympathy and openness to more radical solutions. After the Watts riots, King declared, "It was a class revolt of the under-privileged against the privileged." In 1967, he concluded, "after Selma and the voting rights bill we moved into an era which must be an era of revolution.... The whole structure of American life must be changed."

King now made clear that there was a great deal of difference between the violence of the U.S. state and the violence of those rioting in urban centers across the country, and he began to use a different vocabulary to describe his tactics, referring to "massive nonviolence," "aggressive nonviolence," and even "nonviolent sabotage."

Trying to overcome the collapse of the coalition he built to challenge Southern segregation, the apparent failure of the movement in the North, and the growing impatience among Black activists and Blacks more generally, King formulated a new strategy:
Nonviolence must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods. Non-violent protest must now mature to a new level, to correspond to heightened Black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This high level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.... To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. It is a device of social action that is more difficult for a government to quell by superior force.... It is militant and defiant, not destructive.
King's most powerful indictment of the war came on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered. In a speech at New York City's Riverside Church, aptly titled "A Time to Break Silence: Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," King declared:
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
These kinds of views were not welcome by many of the liberals who had previously praised King in the struggle to end Jim Crow. As [Michael Eric] Dyson observes:
King's assault on America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" elicited a predictably furious reaction from the White House. The news media was even harsher.... Richard Lentz notes that Time magazine had, early in King's opposition to the war, characterized him as a "drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling." Newsweek columnist Kenneth Crawford attacked King for his "demagoguery" and "reckless distortion of the facts." The Washington Post said that King's Riverside speech was a "grave injury" to the civil rights struggle and that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." The New York Times editorialized that King's speech was a "fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate" and that King had done a "disservice to both."
Once King began to attack a war that many "respectable" liberals had deemed necessary, he became public enemy number one among the establishment PC police of the day. Not too surprisingly, the White House, along with the elite media organs of the day began a smear campaign against their former ally.

If King were alive today and making similar speeches about our current wars, or to speak favorably about such movements as Occupy Wall Street, I have little doubt that the "Responsible" crowd (not only on the right-wing of the nation's political spectrum, but also among the nominally "liberal" and "progressive" wings) would be attacking King as "uppity" and bordering on "treason" and no doubt being "irresponsible" to the civil rights cause.

If King were alive today, I also suspect that he too would be reflecting on how little we had learned in the last four decades.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

#OccupyWallStreet to Moveon: Fuck Off

Found at Jodie Dean's site, I cite. Speaking of which, Jodi sez:
The NYT has a "debate" over OWS.  The openness of the movement/space invites this kind of debate as people and factions try to contain it or repurpose it to their own ends. The NYT debate participates in packaging the movement, in making it safe for readers of the NYT, many of whom are in the top 1%. Below, I don't mention all the contributions. Naomi Klein's is very good (I excerpted another version of it here on I Cite yesterday).

One question I have before I start: who can say "our movement" and who can say "we"? Is it necessary to have been sleeping in the park since day 1? to have slept in the park some times? to have participated in the f-2-f general assemblies? to have visited and marched?

Some say that no one who hasn't been there has a right to judge, criticize, or analyze the movement. That's not my view. Since OWS has said since the September 17 Day or Rage, there are different ways to support and be part of the movement--setting up OWS in different cities, providing material support, and providing mediated support. In fact, it is crucial to the work of the movement that the movement be understood as exceeding the park and the marches, that the power of the occupation be understood as extending beyond a few blocks of lower Manhattan throughout the country.

I would like to say "we," but I don't think I can, not yet anyway. I think that would be misleading. Yet I nonetheless think that it's important for the Marxist left to say "we" and to say "we" with OWS, especially as an expression of a sense of being comrades. Part of the difficulty, though, is with a certain emphasis coming out of the movement on the refusal of labels. The refusal makes sense and encourages more people to join. But join what? And contribute to what? To a dismantling of the state? To a new legitimation of processes that supplement current ones? To the overthrow of capitalism? These are different battles.
And therein lies the conundrum. Although eschewing labels and ideologies has a certain attractiveness in a movement's early stages - and let's face it, OWS is still very new - at some point, sooner or later, any movement will need to commit to some sort of label or labels. Certainly, it is best that OWS adopts its own label or labels on its own terms rather than react to those labels used by corporate media and political demagogues.

I realize that terms like "ideology" often are viewed negatively, and have been in the US for the duration of my adult life. In fact, since the 1990s, we have supposedly lived in a post-ideological age, which as I have probably noted before is quite convenient for our ruling and technocratic classes. If nothing else, the dominant neoliberal ideology (and yes, it is an ideology) has been allowed to become so insidious that alternatives become practically invisible and difficult to imagine.

What makes the events of the last year so exciting - from the Arab Spring, to the mass occupations against austerity in Athens and Madrid, to the late winter occupation of Madison, to the current OWS (which is rapidly spreading) - is that there are clearly large numbers of people looking for alternatives to the neoliberal status quo. Their willingness to commit to a set of risky actions is itself impressive. Clearly, the status quo is rotten, and more of us are willing to vocalize our dissent, our opposition. It is about damn time.

The rhetoric that I have seen in these various movements is one that is largely anticapitalist and egalitarian. I can think of any of a number of ideological positions with which the participants of OWS and equivalent actions can utilize in order to analyze our present circumstances and to prescribe courses of action based on those analyses. The framework I've used since college is one of an Existentialist-Marxist flavor (credit an intense study of Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" and other works, followed subsequently by studying the works of Gorz and Fanon). The concept of freedom, of becoming, on an individual and collective basis is rather integral to how I tend to view the world. However, my particular ideological preferences are quite compatible with other Marxian ideological preferences to warrant solidarity with each other and with those who may or may not be yet ready or willing to commit to an ideology but are actively opposing the neoliberal order.

Perhaps OWS will evolve into a Popular Front model. Their inclusiveness would seem to indicate that as a possibility, and this is an historical moment that might be ripe for such an approach. That as a collective they have already shunned those shilling for the Democratic Party and eschew association with the Tea Party/GOP is a positive sign. That they explicitly recognize that our two-party system is part of the problem is a positive sign - whatever it evolves into, OWS has become an open space for the large proportion of us who for one reason or another are alienated and disenfranchised. OWS is surely deserving of whatever tangible, intellectual, and moral support that we as fellow comrades on the left can offer.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ten Years Later

A few of us remembered to make note of October 7th, as it marks the tenth anniversary of the commencement of the War On Terra. A decade later, the casualties continue to mount not only in Afghanistan (and neighboring Pakistan), but Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. Sadly, the last decade has been one befitting our bloody history. Image and caption below nicked from Marisacat.

October 7, 2001:   Afterburners create streaks of light during catapult launches from the flight deck aboard USS Enterprise as US Navy fighter aircraft depart for the first strike missions over Afghanistan.    Picture: US Navy / Todd A. Bent / REUTERS

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Think Different

Via Lenin's Tomb

Following #OccupyWallStreet on Twitter

That's pretty much been where I've spent what passes for free time as of late. I really haven't seen much point in blogging per se, as it would be difficult to add much beyond what I've already written over the last several years - at least add much else that might be relevant to those either involved or intrigued by the growing Occupy Wall Street protests. It's there in the archives. I've certainly done my best to discuss anticapitalism, the organizational and structural violence inherent in the current neoliberal order, the wars waged in order to support corporate interests, and so on. I'd rather instead continue to spread the word to those who've been following me on twitter (and will be continuing to do so for the foreseeable future). I also really would rather not simply rehash what other bloggers have already written on the topic. Obviously, I am heartened that the protests have spread to multiple cities across the US and across the globe (as in a fundamental way, this movement is one of numerous efforts to challenge a status quo that is incredibly toxic to almost all of us). Whether or not the protesters succeed in the short term, there is little doubt that they are succeeding in carrying the weight of history on their shoulders.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten years after

For ages since Since September 11, 2001, I've published a September 11th tribute intended to illustrate several other 9/11s that have occurred over the last century and a half. Perhaps I might recycle a version of that in a little while if I find myself in the mood to do so.

For now I'd like to do something a little different. About ten years ago, just after the Twin Towers fell, a friend of mine on a message board made a comment that the chickens had come home to roost. I know I was pretty hacked off at him for making that comment at the time - more because it was just too soon than for the content itself. Later I'd learn that others, such as Ward Churchill, had written similar sorts of statements in the days that followed the attacks. While the message offered up by these various individuals - including my friend - was one that was not pleasant to read or hear, it was a message that needed to be read and heard.

Anyone who has read me for any length of time has already sussed out that I am no friend to religious extremists of any stripe. I have nothing pleasant to say about the likes of the late Osama bin Laden. However, what is clear to me is that - to the extent that Osama had any responsibility for the carnage caused a decade ago - Osama was very clear on his reasoning for wanting an attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In his case it had to do with a US military presence in Saudi Arabia. Others have discussed the symbolism of the Twin Towers as representing the negative influence of American-based multi-national corporate conglomerates on the Global South. Some sort of blowback was arguably inevitable.

One of my motivations early on was to try to understand what would motivate such an attack. Note that there is a difference between trying to explain a terrorist attack and excusing one. Certainly, there is nothing redeeming from my perspective for any attack that results in the deaths of civilians. But what is critical is to understand why someone would consider massive attacks resulting in nearly 3000 deaths as acceptable. One conclusion that I have drawn is one I will paraphrase from Ward Churchill: if you want to be safe from terrorism, stop bombing other nations, stop killing the children of other nations, stop enabling the impoverishment and starvation of people in other nations. It's a truism that violence begets violence. It may be far to much to expect of our current government and its corporate sponsors that it cease the violence inflicted on others - be that violence military or economic. At bare minimum we do have a responsibility to understand the nature of that violence, and the extent to which our own hands are dirty. Ten years ago, the chickens came home to roost, and they will continue to come home to roost until something significant changes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wherein I cite "I cite"

George Ciccariello-Maher: Planet of Slums, Age of Riots:

Excerpted from Counterpunch:
Mob Hysteria

When economic violence reaches a certain point, social counter-violence soon follows, and yet it is rarely the bankers or the politicians, the purveyors of global austerity measures, who bear the brunt. It begins with name-calling, and no name has more political and historical resonance than “the mob,” the most traditional of slurs. From Philadelphia to London, we are told, the specter of the mob looms, and to the image of the “baying mob,” that keystone of journalistic integrity The Sun has also added the image of the “trouble-making rabble.”

Irrational, uncontrollable, impermeable to logic and unpredictable in its movements, these undesirables have once again ruined the party for everyone, as they have done from Paris 1789 to Caracas 1989. In Fanon’s inimitable words: “the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands and start burning…”

To use the word “mob” is a fundamentally political gesture. It is an effort by governing elites and conservative forces to delegitimize and denigrate popular resistance, to empty it of all political content by drawing a line of rationality in the sand. To make demands is reasonable, but since “the mob” is the embodiment of unreason, it cannot possibly make demands. Never mind the very clearly political motivations that sparked the rebellions around London, as well as the growing and equally political concerns about economic inequality and racist policing: these have been well documented, no matter how little many Britons want to hear it.

But I want to address directly the idea that the riots are fundamentally irrational, as the smear of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of media denunciation and hear what the rebels are saying themselves:

Argument 1: Nothing Else Has Worked, This Might.

When ITV asked one young rebel what, if anything, rioting would achieve, his response was as matter-of-fact as it was profound:

“You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?... Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

As another put it: “you can’t do nothing that’s normal for it to happen right.” In other words, legitimate discontent has not been heard through official channels, and so those suffering turn to unofficial ones. If someone has an effective counter-argument to this, I’m all ears. This is not to suggest that the rebellions have a singular logic shared by every participant, but that there is logic to be found nonetheless.

This isn’t the only time riots have worked, either: in 2009 Oakland, it was riots and only riots that led to the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the death of Oscar Grant. And this effectiveness extends to the tactical, while the left marches and is surrounded by police, these street rebels have proven far less susceptible to tactics like “kettling”: as The Guardian put it,

roaming groups of youths cannot be effectively kettled. And unlike activists they will often return to the site of trouble, seeking direct confrontation with police.The looters appear to have been more savvy. Large groups targeting shops have been melting into a nearby estate in seconds at the first sound of sirens arriving.

Argument 2: The Rich Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

Poor people aren’t stupid enough not to have noticed what’s been going on in the world around them. As capitalist crisis has set in a massive redistribution of wealth has taken place, with banks and investors bailed out at the expense of the population, effectively rewarding them for predatory behavior and leveraging national debt into economic growth. The rich line their profits as essential services and benefits are slashed, and faced with such obvious “looting,” we are somehow expected not to notice.

One onlooker to the London riots puts it precisely:

This is about youth not having a future… a lot of these people are unemployed, a lot of these people have their youth center closed down for years, and they’re basically seeing the normal things: the bankers getting away with what they’re getting away with… this is the youth actually saying to themselves, guess what? These people can get away with that, then how come we can’t tell people what we feel?

As one young female looter told The Sun, “We’re getting our taxes back,” and as another told The Guardian, “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters.”

Argument 3: Locating the Riots.

Essential to the imagery of the irrational mob is the insistence that the bulk of the destruction is centered on working-class communities, and here the logic is fundamentally colonial. The poor and the Blacks can’t be trusted: look what they do to their own. Incapable of governing themselves, they must be taught civilization, by blows if necessary. Here again Oakland resonates, as after the riots there a solitary African braid shop, one of many whose windows were smashed, became the media symbol of the ‘irrationality’ of rioters hell-bent on destruction and nothing more. It is worth noting that the poor rarely “own” anything at all, even in their “own” communities.

To break this narrative, we must read the actions of the rebels as well as listening to their words. While working-class communities have indeed suffered damage (we should note that working-class communities always bear the brunt of upheaval), there has been less talk of more overtly political targeting: police stations burned to the ground, criminal courts windows smashed by those who had passed through them, and the tacitly political nature of youth streaming into neighboring areas to target luxury and chain stores. On just the first night, rioters in Tottenham Hale targeted “Boots, JD Sports, O2, Currys, Argos, Orange, PC World and Comet,” whereas some in nearby Wood Green ransacking the hulking HMV and H&M before bartering leisurely with their newly acquired possessions.

This tendency was seemingly lost on analysts at The Guardian, who were left scratching their heads when the riot locations did not correspond directly to the areas with the highest poverty. And it’s not just the lefty news outlets that let such details slip: Danny Kruger, ex-adviser to David Cameron observed that:  “The districts that took the brunt of the rioting on Monday night were not sink estates. Enfield, Ealing, Croydon, Clapham... these places have Tory MPs, for goodness’ sake. A mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.”

While refusing to denounce the rebellions, socialist thinker Alex Callinicos nevertheless suggests that such looting is “a form of do-it-yourself consumerism… reflecting the intensive commodification of desires in the neoliberal era.” This view misses the far more complex role of the commodity during a riot, which was as evident in Oakland as in Venezuela: not only is the looting of luxury consumer items far more complex than Callinicos suggests, but the argument of looting as consumerism would have a hard time explaining both the destruction of luxuries and appropriation of necessities that often ensues.

Despite the ideological deployment of the specter of mob hysteria, in the words of one observer, there is “nothing mindless” about the London rebellions.

“An Insurrection of the Masses”

British media has by now largely closed ranks against the rebellion, providing a seamless tapestry of denunciation that oscillates between the violently reactionary and the comically hysterical. But this was not without first making a serious mistake, an error in judgment that pried open but the tiniest crack into which stepped a man who has since become a focal point for resistance to the media hype. Darcus Howe, nephew of the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, seems to have inherited his uncle’s acute capacity for seeing through the racist hype about “mobs” and discerning the political kernel of seemingly apolitical daily acts of resistance, of recognizing the new even amid the crumbling shell of the old.

When asked in a live BBC interview to characterize the recent outbursts, How spoke the following words:

I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment…

When Howe refused to follow the self-generating script, one so well-known that no orders for its reading usually need be given, the flailing BBC correspondent turned first to bad logic and then to ad hominem attack. If Howe was attempting to explain the context of the rebellions he must also be condoning their effects, and wasn’t he, by the way, himself a rioter as a youth? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but he was certainly accused of being one: Howe was tried for affray and riot at the Old Bailey in 1971 only to be acquitted. After Howe’s later release on charges of assaulting a police officer, Linton Kwesi Johnson penned a tribute, “Man Free,” which featured the following words

Him stand up in the court like a mighty lion, him stand up in the court like a man of iron, Darcus out of jail, Shabba!

(A video of the interview recorded from a living room has spread like wildfire, with more than 2.3 million hits as I write, and the Beeb has since been forced to apologize, blaming unspecified “technical issues”).

“The Nature of the Historical Moment”

Darcus Howe is right: there is something peculiar about “the nature of the historical moment.” Maybe it began in 1989 in the South, when Venezuelans rose up against neoliberalism in the Caracazo rebellions only to be crushed in blood and fire with up to 3,000 dead. Who was the subject of that near-insurrection, that world-historical detonator which forever transformed Venezuela and unleashed all that has come since? The poor dwellers of the barrios surrounding Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, the product of decades of systematic underdevelopment and the nascent neoliberalism that had accelerated its effects. These were the residents of the slums of which our planet was soon composed, in Mike Davis’s haunting words, and without access to political power or a workplace to strike in, they had discovered the location of their political action in practice: the streets.

But as jobs have moved South, crisis has come North. Or rather, it has been here all along, in the South of the North and the North of the South, but austerity measures have begun to shift the effects of the contemporary crisis to reach a far broader demographic. In this context, critiquing the effects of riots in our historical moment is about as effective as bemoaning the existence of gravity. Those taking to the streets of London and elsewhere are the social product of capitalist restructuring in the long term and austerity measures in the short term. But a historical subject does not gain its status merely from being a product: first it must act.

Darcus Howe’s uncle, the late C.L.R. James, was straightforward in insisting that it is in such action that the new world emerges from the shell of the old, and here I only hope to note some hopeful indications of this. First and foremost is the unprecedented spirit of unity that has emerged in the streets of London and elsewhere. As The Guardian reports:

…the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of deprived young men who identify with each other… Kast gave the example of how territorial markers which would usually delineate young people's residential areas – known as ‘endz,’ ‘bits’ and ‘gates’ – appear to have melted away. “On a normal day it wouldn’t be allowed – going in to someone else’s area… Now they can go wherever they want. They’re recognising themselves from the people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”

This sense of unity is not merely among different sets from different areas, but also extends to the unprecedented multi-ethnic demographic that has participated: poor whites, Black British, African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, South Asians, Muslims, and Jews have all played a role. While some in the Jewish community have complained of being singled out for the participation of Hasidic Jews in the first night’s rioting in Tottenham, this should instead be read against assumptions that the crowd was only Black or only Muslim. All ages have participated as well, with entire families spotted either looting or warning looters of approaching police. The youth, and especially young men, have nevertheless constituted the functional spearhead of the rebellions, with one observer insisting that “this is a movement of the youth, of the young people saying, guess what mister, I’ve got no voice, no future, no leadership.”

But if C.L.R. James saw the potential for unity amid such rebellions, cracks in the shell of the old often produce dangerous shards, and so he was also keenly aware of the equal potential for the opposite: racist backlash among even poor whites. Thus while the more the more liberal wing of white supremacy has appeared in the form of “broom armies” cleaning up the aftermath of the rebellions (wearing t-shirts emblazoned with such heartwarming slogans as “rioters are scum”), “mobs” of white racists like the “Enfield Army” have also emerged, offering their services to the police against the rioters (this alongside the more organized white supremacy of the English Defence League).

“The Left Must Respond”

In a short web comment, Daniel Harvey expressed the sentiment of many on the radical left seeking to walk the fine line between uncritically embracing the English rebellions and falling into the right-wing media strategy of denunciation:

We have to remain loyal to this crisis. We have to support the eruption of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society… the problem is not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are simply not radical enough.  We have to radicalise them further… We have to support the anger, but make the anger political, and thereby turn it into something genuinely powerful and dangerous – a revolutionary moment rather than a riot.

This is certainly true in one sense, but it runs the risk of neglecting the fact that “the left” is far behind the rebels in the streets. In some key ways, these riots are far more radical and more effective than the left has proven itself to be, and the rebels have certainly surpassed the left in tactical savvy as in sheer bravado. Who is really more radical?

Certainly, “the left must respond” as one op-ed puts it, if only to fight the messaging of the right, but only if we recognize that there is much we can learn from those rushing through the London streets. As one observer puts it, these youth “got nothing to lose,” to which we might be tempted to add, ‘but their chains…’
And yes, there is no doubt to me that the Left must respond.

Monday, August 8, 2011

It's time to flip our Whigs

One is that, as I've written a few times over the last few years, Obama is America's Tony Blair: essentially a mildly rightwing Whig but someone who will use his ability at rhetoric to misdirect and dissemble in an attempt to please the maximum number of prospective voters the largest amount of the time possible.
 nerdified link

Thursday, July 21, 2011

André Gorz on technocrats

Just a few words by André Gorz from nearly a half century ago:
By its very function, technocracy tends therefore to locate itself "above the classes," to deny the necessity for class struggle, to set itself up as mediator and referee and in so doing to enter into contradiction with the classes. The famous "depoliticization" of the mass which technocracy pretends to take note of is not a fact it observes; it is rather the end it pursues, the result it wants to obtain -- and does obtain in a very limited degree. "Depoliticization" is the ideology of technocracy itself. The so-called "neutrality" of the State is the ideology which justifies the power and the domination which technocracy is led to claim for itself by the logic of its structure.

The conflict of technocracy with the working classes as well as with the bourgeoisie is always profoundly ambiguous: this caste refuses from the outset to make decisions on the political terrain. Objectively progressive (or "on the Left") in its conflicts with the monopolies, technocracy is subjectively conservative ("on the Right") in its conflict with the working class. Attempting to eliminate in advance the question of power, which it thinks can be held only by professional managers, it tries to keep a clear conscience in the midst of the contradictory criticisms to which it is exposed. Toward the monopolies it internalizes the conservatism of which the Left accuses it by showing that the rationalization measures which it proposes consolidate and protect the capitalist system. Toward the labor movement it boasts of its conflicts with the monopolies in order to underscore its objectively progressive role.

This double game is obviously a mystification: to pretend to keep a balance between a bourgeoisie which is in power and a working class which is not necessarily to play into the hands of the former. Technocracy is conservative ideologically (subjectively) to the very degree that its objective progressivism serves it as an alibi in its efforts to consolidate the existing System, to arbitrate its conflicts, and to absorb anticapitalist forces.

It shares this conservatism with all technicians insofar as they are empiricists. Conductor of an apparatus which interests him only for its smooth and efficient functioning, the technician cares a great deal more for the instrument than for the ends it serves. He lives from the beginning in a ready-made rationality with predetermined purposes which his work and his education do not lead him to question. The only truth, for him, is smooth functioning; and he sees value only in immediately applicable propositions. The rest is utopia.
Gorz, in Strategy for Labor, then goes on to discuss the conditions on which the above attitude is supported, including the appearance of no alternative to the capitalist system, the appearance of incompetence among anticapitalist forces, and the strength of the labor movement. The lack of a strong labor movement, according to Gorz, will lead technocracy to essentially coopt and neutralize labor. A strong labor movement (and strong anticapitalist forces) on the other hand will lead to a large proportion of technocrats to cast their lot with labor. Like the bulk of the rest of the middle class, technocrats will likely be skeptical about socialist alternatives unless they perceive that there is a reason for socialism to succeed, that there are indeed viable alternatives to the prevailing capitalist system. If we think about our current political and economic context in the US, we can understand where are technocrats are coming from, and understand why there is little that one might consider "hopey-changey" in the words and deeds of the current generation of technocrats (or neoliberal left, as has been said elsewhere).

75th Anniversary

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the coup that installed Gen. Franco as dictator in Spain. Socialist Worker has a summary of the events prior to the coup.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Krugman is a sign of the political opportunity this moment presents to socialists to build off of reformist politics and push them left and to reach an audience that may have been hostile to us before 2008. But those connections can only be made if we leave sectarianism and gloating at the door...Certainly there is no room for that when we face such a daunting material reality. 

The rest at Pink Scare.

The "neoliberal left": an oxymoron

I saw this over at Crooked Timber (via Memeorandum) and wanted to highlight a bit of it:
There is a real phenomenon that you might describe as left neo-liberalism in the US - liberals who came out of the experience of the 1980s convinced that the internal interest group dynamics of the Democratic party were a problem. These people came up with some interesting arguments (but also: Mickey Kaus), but seem to me to have always lacked a good theory of politics.

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is.
This seems an apt enough description, and one that I would use to help my readers understand what is defined as a "left" in the US (and to a somewhat-to-slightly lesser degree in Europe). Now there's an old saying that I'll attribute to social psychologist Kurt Lewin: "There's nothing so practical as a good theory." Much of our "left" in the US has been, during the course of my adult life, largely atheoretical when it comes to politics. As a teen and young man, I would refer to those who took the neoliberal turn as "yuppie liberals" and later as "401k progressives". Such pejoratives contained an important kernel of information regarding how these relatively technocratic "leftists" viewed themselves and perhaps even a few kernels about our own particular historical context. My reading of the 1980s is one of disillusionment with the prevailing ideologies of the preceding decades. Keynesian capitalism was no longer fashionable, to be sure. The nations that had put various flavors of Marxian socialism into practice were in decline, making it rather difficult to find much enthusiasm for these particular alternatives to capitalism. The infrastructure upon which our particular left, such as it was, largely depended upon entities such as organized labor - whose origins were decidedly of an anticapitalist flavor (whether Marxian, or anarchist) - and civil rights and peace movements - which themselves were based on theories which questioned much of what was considered sacred to those in power. The basic upshot was that the concept of praxis (basically, putting ideas into action), solidarity and collective action were steadily abandoned over the course of the decade. In its place, emerged an "end of ideology" mentality.

The main upshot of it was that with a few tweaks of the machinery or software, any problem in the system could be fixed. No assumptions were to made about the role of class, etc., nor did there appear any inclination to do more than sneer at those who might. Nor was there any perceived need for the sorts of collective actions that had seemed perfectly sensible prior to the 1980s. What we ended up with was a disinterested and disconnected polity that managed to lumber along in spite of mounting evidence that an atheoretical approach to politics was an epic failure (I could go on about the increases in poverty, the resumption of the war against women, etc.).

It really wasn't until the last handful of years that anyone with any serious influence has questioned if the technocrats might be part of the problem. Without a coherent political theory, neoliberals of the left have no means of sustaining the sorts of long-term movements needed to effect any social change (as we have seen here and elsewhere, such change still requires feet on the ground), nor any means of providing an alternative analysis outside the very narrow confines of our contemporary economic and political discourse. Instead, our technocratic elites continue to fall for anything in order to seek out the next quick tweak to the system (which is what happens when you don't, as the saying goes, stand for anything). Hope and change you can believe in? I think not. Those ideologies of yore are starting to look pretty damned relevant once more. We ignore them at our peril.