About cointelbr0

PhD student at American University in DC studying comparative politics. Interests are global political economy, neo-Marxism, faster horses, more money.

Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

Dutch Election 2017: Soft Drugs and Racism

Today is the beginning of campaigning for the Dutch general election being held on 15 hhcktrnMarch 2017 to elect all 150 members of the House of Representatives. Yes, the country famous for boring windmills, some great painters, and liberal drug laws is doing some politics. It’s likely that the election outcome will be incredibly terrifying at worst or just depressing at best.

That is largely because of the immense popularity of anti-Muslim nationalist Geert “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” Wilders, whose resonating message of immigrant hysteria has hit home with social conservatives and their racial pathologies. Naturally, mainstream politicians have embraced a more moderate version of Wilders’ message, choosing to condemn vague outside forces rather than Islam or refugees directly. Hence, you have Mark Rutte, the incumbent Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the beacon of tolerance to the world, telling immigrants to “act normal or leave.”

Only Wilders has come out in favor of a referendum on EU membership, so it’s unlikely that there will be a “Nexit” in the near future. However, the last general election in 2012 centered around the austerity measures introduced by the government, and the provision of state benefits (or lack thereof) remains a huge electoral issue. It is possible (not probable) that a EU referendum could be used to placate PVV voters who will be angry that PVV will have the most seats but no place in government; such a vote would probably fail in the Netherlands but could further the anti-EU momentum bolstered by Brexit.

The good news is that, even if Wilders’ party wins a majority in the election, it’s unlikely it would be able to form a government without entering into a multi-party coalition, which the other major parties would be loath to join, especially with Wilders setting the agenda. The bad news is that a lot of voters will be dissatisfied voting for his anti-immigration rhetoric and not getting anti-immigration legislation and policies. Whatever emerges as the new government will therefore probably adopt the PVV platform, even to a limited extent. So Wilders may get his cake and also maintain his status as an “outsider” that has been such a boon to his populist image.

Here’s EUObserver to explain the Dutch election process:

One important feature of the Dutch electoral system of proportional representation, where receiving 0.7 percent of the vote can be enough to enter the Lower House, is the multitude of parties.

On 15 March, 28 different political parties will be running.

Since the end of World War II, seats have been divided among at least seven parties, with 11 parties winning seats in the previous election, in 2012.

However, in the past four years, eight MPs have left to form six new factions, many of whom are now also running in the hope of getting elected on their own strength.

It is no surprise that with so many parties, Dutch voters seek any help they can get to make up their mind.

Online tools that compare political positions of the parties are popular: in 2012, 4.85 million people used Stemwijzer, the most well-known website offering such a service. The Netherlands has a population of 17 million, with 12.9 million eligible to vote.

The multitude of parties, and the fact that many do not differ much in size, also offers some organisational problems, for instance: who do you invite for election debates?

TV broadcaster RTL had wanted to organise a debate with the leaders of the four largest political parties according to an average of six polls.

But on Sunday, it decided to invite five: the numbers three and four were so closely trailed by the number five, that RTL thought it would be unfair to exclude the latter.

The two frontrunners, anti-EU MP Geert Wilders and then centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte decided to cancel.

They said a debate with five leaders was against the original agreement, but other motives may also have played a role. Political commentators have suggested that Wilders and Rutte, who in the current polls are competing for the top spot, would not want to give other politicians the platform to attack them.

The affair initially led RTL to cancel the debate altogether, but then it decided to go ahead without them.

Another important feature is that the Netherlands is a country of coalitions.

There has never been a party that received an absolute majority of votes, so Wilders, who wants to become prime minister, would need coalition partners.

All traditional parties, including Rutte’s, have said they would not enter in a coalition government with Wilders.

That does not mean it that it will not happen. In 2012, Rutte and his centre-left opponent Diederik Samsom had framed the election campaign as if it was a two-way choice between them as prime minister.

This has led to voters casting strategic votes according to which of them they would want to have as prime minister.

According to a inquiry by the Volkskrant newspaper, even traditionally left-wing voters are now considering to vote for Rutte to prevent a Wilders becoming PM.

If the two draw away many votes from other parties, they could become so large that working together becomes inevitable – a repeat of the 2012 scenario.

While the largest party has traditionally been given the time to form a majority government, it is also not unprecedented that the party that comes out the winner ends up being left out in the cold.

In 1977, the centre-left Labour party came out of the elections triumphant, but the numbers two and three formed a coalition.

Of course, those were days in which two parties would have enough seats to form a majority.

If the current polls are anything to go by, it may take four or more parties to achieve a coalition. It also means that smaller parties may play the role of kingmakers.

Who are parties and their leaders? You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. I have included the predicted number of seats each party is likely to win, according to a 14 February 2017 De Stemming poll:

Party for Freedom (PVV)
Leader: Geert Wilders
Expected Seats: 26

The PVV is a far-right, anti-immigration party led by poorly-drawn fascist Geert Wilders, who has promised to ban Islam from the Netherlands, including mosques and the Koran. wildersWilders, a life support system for a pompadour, has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and referred to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, as a “barbarian, a mass murderer, and a pedophile.” In December, Wilders was convicted of inciting discrimination against Moroccans for leading a chant of “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” at an election rally in 2014. The PVV is hostile to the European Union, promoting withdrawal from the EU and the restoration of the guilder as Dutch currency. It also wants to limit welfare benefits to people proficient in the Dutch language and who have lived in the Netherlands for a decade.

People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)
Leader: Mark Rutte
Expected Seats: 23

The VVD is a center-right pro-business party led by the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. They entered into a coalition with the Labour Party (see below) in the 1990s and oversaw the institution of your typical neoliberal policy prescriptions: privatizing state-owned assets, deregulating industries, slashing social services, etc. The 2008 markruttefinancial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crisis only increased their fiscal conservatism – as well as economic unease for the poor and vulnerable groups who lost out under unfettered capitalism. But FREE MARKETS BABY!!! Rutte is so boring he’s the embodiment of the color beige, although he has been known to have a glass of wine now and again. He admitted that his mother still does his laundry for him.

Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA)
Leader: Sybrand van Haersma Buma
Expected Seats: 18

The CDA is a centrist party that was long a major player in Dutch politics until its near collapse in 2010. This breakdown in occurred as there has been increasingly less 1003_bumaideological division between the major center-right and center-left parties. It also suffered because its leadership entered into an alliance with the more conservative VVD when most of its membership tend to be left-leaning on bourgeois issues like education and the environment. The party would generally like to see more restrictions placed on prostitution and soft drugs and tends to be pro-EU integration and welcoming toward immigrants. Their leader, Sybrand Buma, is descended from Frisian aristocracy and tends to look like he just smelled a big fart.

Democrats 66 (D66)
Leader: Alexander Pechtold
Expected Seats: 16

“I’d say I’m fiscally conservative but socially very liberal. The problems are bad but their causes…their causes are very good.” The D66 emerged in 1966 as part of an intellectual alexander-pechtold-sept2010movement to make Dutch politics more democratic, and even today they ostensibly favor creating a unicameral legislature and directly electing the Prime Minister. Generally, however, the party has become a haven for well-to-do, highly educated professional people who are socially liberal on the issues that affect them: education, the environment, research and technology, and so on. They could emerge as important coalition partners along with the CDA in the upcoming election. Their leader is Alexander Pechtold, a master of the PR dark arts who has tried to ape Wilders’ populist tactics. Wilders recently tweeted a doctored photo of Pechtold at a Muslim rally. Of course, no self-respecting D66 member would be seen in the streets cavorting with plebeians.

GroenLinks
Leader: Jesse Klaver
Expected Seats: 15

GroenLinks is the major green politics party, an odd amalgam of environmentalists, Christian socialists and communists led by a leader who is a mix of Justin Trudeau, jesseklaver-2Caroline Lucas and Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein. Obviously, ecology and animal rights are their unifying principles, but somewhat more vague what they mean by “shared prosperity” and “taking care of each other.” They are led by boy king Jesse Klaver, who wants to be Barack Obama so bad that he plagiarized him. The party has clearly invested a lot into creating a personality cult around Klaver and the result is that people either love him as a sincere idealist or hate him as a vacuous pop star.

Socialist Party (SP)
Leader: Emile Roemer
Expected Seats: 13

The anti-austerity, far-left Socialist Party has long sought to capitalize on the decline of the Labour Party, but so far has failed to make the breakthrough. This can be attributed to its start as an activist, grassroots party established in Marxism that has significantly roemermoderated and even flirted with more moderate social democratic politics at the local and regional levels, alienating its rank-and-file membership. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be taken seriously as a governing partner by the more neoliberal parties if it considered too extreme. Its leader, Emile Roemer, is warm, cuddly and nicknamed “Fozzie Bear” – also because he is a bad joke.

Labour Party (PvdA)
Leader: Lodewijk Asscher
Expected Seats: 12

Originally the party of the Dutch labor movement and the trade unions, the Labour Party has, like so many of its contemporaries across Europe, become an ardent proponent of deconstructing the old social democratic consensus. From the 1990s to the present, the asscherparty has entered into coalitions with more right-wing parties, further diluting whatever claim to left-wing principles it may have once had. Its base is working class, skeptical of globalization and immigration, while its leadership is a haughty cosmopolitan technical elite. Once the premier center-left party, it is now headed to political extinction. Its latest in a long line of unappealing leaders is Lodewijk Asscher, the minister for social affairs and employment as well as deputy prime minister, meaning he is leading the party in opposition to the neoliberal reforms he himself designed and implemented. Irony!

50PLUS (50+)
Leader: Henk Krol
Expected Seats: 10

Not a mature porn Web site. All those old, angry retirees who want you to get off their henk-krollawn got together and formed a political party. They are opposed to austerity, but only so far as it affects them: they really want the retirement age moved back to 65. “Imagine if your roommate made you watch a movie and left ten minutes into it. Dick move, right? My point is old people shouldn’t get to vote.” Their leader is sleazy journalist and publisher Henk Krol, who resigned from the House in 2013 when it came out that Krol withheld pension money from his employees at a gay lifestyle magazine.

Christian Union (CU)
Leader: Gert-Jan Segers
Expected Seats: 6

The CU describes itself as a “social Christian” party, meaning they hate abortions but like the welfare state. They believe in the nice, merciful God from the Bible who died for your gert-jan-segerssins and loves you, but doesn’t want you to have control over your own body or have any fun whatsoever. They tend to be somewhat skeptical of integration with the European Union but are not generally hostile to immigrants. Their leader, Gert-Jan Segers, is a pious egg.

Party for the Animals (PvdD)
Leader: Marianne Thieme
Expected Seats: 6

A single-issue animal rights party, the Party for the Animals claims not to be a single issue party, even though they are. They have no illusions of entering into government but seek to influence legislation by holding seats in the House. Their leader is Seventh-day 800full-marianne-thiemeAdventist vegetarian Marianne Thieme, who ends all her speeches by saying, “Voorts zijn wij van mening dat er een einde moet komen aan de bio-industrie” (“Furthermore we are of the opinion that factory farming has to be ended”) in imitation of Cato the Elder concluding all his speeches by calling for the destruction of Rome’s rival Carthage. They have gained some respect because they stick to their positions on the issues they care about rather than trying to change for electoral success.

Reformed Political Party (SGP)
Leader: Kees van der Staaij
Expected Seats: 4

Unlike the CU, the SGP believes that God is angry because not everyone is a Calvinist. They believe in a government totally based on the Bible and eschew participation in cabinet. kees-van-der-staaijThey are not only strongly opposed to abortion but to feminism and universal suffrage in general, and only put forward male candidates. They are not so pro-life that they oppose the death penalty, but since most people in the Netherlands do, the SGP advocates that “people suspected of serious crimes, such as terrorism, should be extradited to countries where the death penalty exists.” Party leader and constitutional law expert Kees van der Staaij is probably not very fun at parties.

DENK (THINK)
Leaders: Selçuk Öztürk and Tunahan Kuzu
Expected Seats: 1

DENK was formed by two former Labour MPs, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, after they were expelled for criticizing Lodewijk Asscher, the minister for social affairs and fellow kuzuozturkLabour MP (now the Labour leader). Asscher announced that the government would be monitoring a number of Turkish groups in the Netherlands for “strengthening of the Turkish-Islamic identity” which could lead to a “departure from Dutch customs, norms and values.” Kuzu and Öztürk accused Asscher of promoting exclusion rather than inclusion since the groups were not doing anything illegal. DENK is basically a two-man band promoting basic center-left policies but with an emphasis on opposing racism and appealing to naturalized immigrants who feel threatened by the xenophobia in Dutch politics. Kuzu made international news in September 2016 when he refused to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a display of opposition to “the abuse of Palestinian civilians living under Israeli military rule.”

Useful links:

http://www.volkskrant.nl/politiek/ — Politics section of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (in Dutch)
https://www.trouw.nl/democratie — Politics section of the Dutch newspaper Trouw (in Dutch)
http://nltimes.nl/categories/politics — English-language Dutch politics news site
http://www.dutchnews.nl/category/politics/ — Another English-language Dutch news resource
https://medium.com/@endeeh — A Medium writer writing about the Dutch election, whose best material I have shamelessly stolen

The Liberal Cult of Reason

On January 21st, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the 320px-contemplating_the_headlines_at_the_newseum_283245120718529United States, over a million people took to the streets in women’s marches across the country. It was a remarkable demonstration of opposition to the new president and his right-wing agenda. The question remains, however, whether the emotion and energy that led to such widespread protests will sustain themselves, or if the marches were just fleeting acts of catharsis, a single day of activism to alleviate the severe distaste many American progressives felt following the swearing-in of a man whom they despise.

The realistic (if depressing) answer is that the latter is more likely. Like the Occupy Wall Street rallies and the Black Lives Matter campaign, the women’s marches signify a popular antagonism toward the status quo, but offer no clear road to major reforms. It is obvious to any observer that there is a national current of anger and anxiety, a reflection of global unrest aimed at elites over unaddressed grievances. The problem, however, especially among U.S. progressives, is how to create and sustain a unified social movement capable of affecting meaningful change. Sadly, one of the reasons the women’s marches were so successful is because they became empty vessels in which everyone could champion their favorite issue. Hillary Clinton Democrats, convinced Russia rigged the election against their candidate, marched alongside Bernie Sanders supporters arguing that Trump won because of his economic populism. Also present were left-wing radicals – socialists, communists, anarchists – who saw the election of Trump as a symptom rather than the disease. The “America is already great” crowd rubbed shoulders with the “America was never great” proponents because the march brought them together in their mutual rejection of Trump. It notably avoided asking the contentious but nonetheless important question: “Where do we go from here?”

320px-trump_protest_283075103129029It should be evident that the U.S. needs a radical break with the past. Unfortunately, for the liberal centrist, radicalism is anathema, regardless of its principles. A supporter of far-left causes is as harmful to the body politic as a fascist. Last year, moderate pundits decried Trump’s surging popularity on the back of his anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric, equating him with Adolf Hitler. These same pundits then lambasted anti-Trump protesters for disrupting pro-Trump rallies and fighting with Trump supporters. This seeming contradiction reached peak levels on Inauguration Day, when an anti-fascist protester punched prominent white nationalist and leader of the “alt-right,” Richard Spencer. Those same pundits started to debate whether it was acceptable to use violence against someone whose views are essentially synonymous with Nazism. For some political “experts,” the political sphere must preserve civility and decorum in the political sphere, even as advocates of racial hatred gain a worrying amount of mainstream credibility. While perfect parallels between the 1920s and the 2010s cannot be drawn, it is worth remembering that fascism did not flourish in Europe entirely by force, but by becoming normalized as a valid and respectable political force.

For many progressives, that liberals could so ardently defend the rights of fascists given the lessons of the early 20th century is maddening, but it is understandable. Cooperation and consensus lies at the heart of the liberal mindset. Liberalism opposes the reduction of individual liberty for the health of the community; the state only holds the power granted to it by the people, whose natural rights are inviolate. In a political environment of moderation and compromise, citizens employ reason to arrive at utilitarian outcomes, just as merchants negotiate mutually beneficial arrangements. The presence of a regulator interfering with the organic, rational transaction goes against the premium liberalism places on freedom. As such, a racist such as Richard Spencer must have the freedom to espouse his vitriol without the threat of physical harm. In the marketplace of ideas, the liberal argues, racism on its own will gain no currency; to remove it from the shelf sets us down the slippery slope of wanton censorship and eventually repression.

Of course, the marketplace of ideas is no more “free” than the “free market” of 186px-johnlockeeconomics. Liberal idealists, from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, did indeed claim that peace and prosperity was a natural result of human nature and economic interdependence. When World War I broke out, however, it demonstrated the necessity of enforcing peace and prosperity. This is why we now live in an age of international regimes that foster collaboration between states as well as transnational corporations, international non-governmental organizations, and so on. These regimes ostensibly serve to ensure that gains between those actors are evenly shared, but it is now indisputable that those regimes benefit some and exploit others. Inequalities are mounting in terms of power and wealth across the world, reaching unprecedented levels. The Global South has long suffered in a global political economy that extracts more resources than the industrialized world invests into it. What is novel about the current moment is how globalization finds itself under attack in places like Michigan and Yorkshire, in the center of the two most historically prominent Western empires.

We must also see domestic events through the same lens with which we view global ones. In the U.S., there is also a regime that enforces peace and prosperity. This regime is comprised not by the state primarily, but by civil society and the business world. These groups tell the population that capitalism, property rights and liberalized markets will create a wealthier, more technological and more open-minded world. “Regular folks” defer to these experts and accept their arguments as “common sense.” Just as international regimes sanction states that defect from certain norms, so too do domestic regimes punish groups or individuals who stray too far from orthodoxy. There heretics are not censured or thrown in jail, but by liberal standards they suffer a fate worse than death: they are branded as possessing a defect of reason. Accordingly, they are generally excluded from the mass media in favor of analysts and commentators who can regurgitate familiar talking points between commercial breaks. Although “alternative media” has blossomed in the Internet age, the consumers of such media typically already have the evidence such dissidents would have to offer. When Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald appear on Democracy Now!, they are preaching to the choir.

Fact-checking sites have also sprung up on the Internet, but their reporting is often disingenuous. For example, when investigating a claim by Mike Pence that the Qatari government promised $1 million to the Clinton Foundation for a meeting with Bill Clinton, the PolitiFact Web site had no qualms citing leaked emails from Democratic Party officials as evidence that the charge was “mostly true.” When Democrats alleged that the emails contained false information without supporting evidence, however, PolitiFact hedged its 248px-pinnochio_28868670831229bets, not only remaining agnostic on the accusation of forgeries, but even speculating that the Hillary Clinton campaign did indeed possess evidence that emails had been doctored, but was choosing not to release it. Meanwhile, when a chart listing 13 Democratic senators who had voted against lower drug prices by importing drugs from Canada and the money they had received from the pharmaceutical lobby went viral, PolitiFact had no problem rating it deceptive. The site said that the measure the senators voted against would not necessarily have led to lower drug prices. The source for this was not an independent third party, but the communications director for Cory Booker, one of the senators who voted against the amendment. Essentially, of the possible explanations of the votes, PolitiFact went with the one less empirically provable – that is, the public relations spin released by the politicians themselves. This went mostly unnoticed, receiving not nearly as much of the press attention as the Trump administration has in the early days of its coming to grips with the levers of power.

Sites like PolitiFact derive authority not just from their trading in “facts,” but also because they claim absolute neutrality. They occupy a space uninfluenced by normative judgments that would cloud their slavish dedication to the unvarnished truth. This is a space also claimed by most of the press writ large (even the partisan political operations like MSNBC and Fox News), as well as the Beltway “wonks” who claim to be less interested in political theory and more so in the minutia of complex policy details. They gain influence precisely because they situate themselves as above the fray, able to make pronouncements about proposals and behavior because only observe them. They deal not in rhetoric and emotion, but in empirical data and statistical algorithms. Their role in the political process becomes, then, to scrutinize the words and actions of public figures, to catch them in lies and then expose them or to poke holes in their plans. Their cult of reason, the story goes, protects the republic from frauds and charlatans.

Unfortunately, as the rise of Trump proves, they cannot keep us safe from frauds and charlatans. We do not live in an idealized world that operates according to the rules of an Ivy League debate club, where merely pointing out the cognitive bias or logical fallacy beneath a specious argument makes you the “winner.” For example, many Democratic 320px-khizr_and_ghazala_khan_august_2016voters reveled in the speech given by Khizr Khan at the 2016 Democratic Convention because it contradicted the premise that U.S. Muslims are not patriotic. The speech, however, did absolutely nothing to change the minds of prejudiced Americans who supported Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants. Their prejudice was not based on reason to begin with, just as their homophobia does not truly rest on adherence to religious text. They did not arrive at hate because of any real knowledge, but rather an interpretation of reality inserted into their minds by cultural institutions. No amount of exposure to data will convince them that Muslims or homosexuals are generally regular people who want to live like everybody else. Their fear and anger toward these groups find root not in knowledge but feeling. If the excuses used to justify these intolerances seem like clumsy fig leaves for purely visceral proclivities, it is because they are.

The Trump campaign succeeded because it accepted biases and prejudices without caring for the semblance of facts. As a candidate, he accepted wholesale the long-running but unsubstantiated conservative narrative of foreign hordes and unrestrained crime making the country weak and at risk. He even aligned himself with fringe groups on the far right, from neo-Nazis to conspiracy theorists. He shrugged off gaffe after gaffe, scandal after scandal, refusing to recognize the power of the media and political elites to shame him out of the race. As noted here before, Trump was an idea made manifest. He came to embody every resentment and anxiety held by U.S. conservatives, and his disdain of conforming to establishment rules and expectations became a merit rather than a flaw. The things that the political establishment could offer him – media exposure and wealth – he already claimed as a business mogul and celebrity. Unlike Barack Obama, who built momentum behind his political career with his eloquence, charm and erudition, Trump rode a wave of fame and populist outrage that never quite crashed upon the rocks of decency. Many of us wanted to believe – myself included – that Trump would elect on Election Day. For all his appeal to base hatreds, the worst demons of our nature, even the “deplorable” would think twice before voting for him.

The sad thing is, he could have lost. Yet, as we know, the Clinton campaign eschewed a strong ground game in favor of a computer program. It operated from the presumption that eight years of an Obama administration had produced a country familiar with (perhaps even partial to) enlightened rule by a proficient, rational managerial elite. They seem to have forgotten that Obama rose to stardom around a feeling, not a fact: hope. In the future, however, it cannot be more of the same symbolic messaging or empty rhetoric. If there is to be true opposition to Trump moving forward, it must make real commitments and commit itself to definite political change. Protests alone are not enough.

Don’t Blame Identity Politics for Hillary’s Loss

“It is crucial that we not ignore the self nor the longing people have to transform the self, that we make the conditions for wholeness such that they are mirrored both in our own beings and in social and political reality.” — bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam

In modern politics, they are many phrases that we use that have no genuine meaning. For example, the U.S. upper class is referred to often as “job creators.” This frames the wealthy 240px-no_political_correctness-svg1% as benevolent employers, totally erasing the actual work of their productive employees. Another case is “political correctness,” the policing of discourse by sensitive liberals who treat harmless, everyday language as offensive and immoral. The term thrives in the lexicon of conservatives who frequently deploy it as a defense when accused of racism, sexism, or some other form of prejudice. Lately, many pundits have identified “political correctness” as the reason why Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite polls and those same pundits predicting that she would defeat the worst presidential candidate in recent history, a racist narcissist.

Adam Johnson has a superlative, comprehensive piece at FAIR that gathers pieces from Vox, The New York Times and The Washington Post that all attribute a fixation on “identity politics” as a critical error of the Clinton campaign. On the November 19th episode of Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost said that Tinder adding 37 different gender identity options to its dating app represented “why Democrats lost the election.” On November 26th, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum disparaged the “fad” of signaling progressive bona fides by referring to “every sign of racial animus” as white supremacy. There appears to be a growing media consensus that the victories of Donald Trump and the Republican Party stem from effete, out-of-touch liberals who have prioritized affirming their own social values to the point of self-parody, alienating moderates and forgoing any compromise.

The central problem with this is that most journalists and pundits are confusing the “political correctness” canard with genuine identity politics: the struggle of women, 240px-black_lives_matter_logo-svgpeople of color, the LGBT community, and others against exclusion and belittlement. For decades, vulnerable social groups have sought to obtain a voice after being silenced for time out of mind, fighting against the institutional obstacles (in politics as well as society and the economy) depriving them of equality.  It is a fight that continues to this day, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality aimed at African-Americans, by the ongoing battle for transgender rights, and the seemingly never-ending campaign to secure for women equal pay for equal work. It would be (rightfully) outrageous if Colin Jost had implied that embracing feminism had cost Hillary Clinton the election, so he took a page from the “political correctness playbook” and mocked Tinder adding additional genders: an inclusive, innocuous act that only seems absurd to some because the idea of gender being non-binary is still a novel concept to some — as it was once incredulous that women or black people could vote.

There is also a bias among the “liberal intelligentsia” toward always finding the center, the reflexive inclination that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” Racism and white supremacy exist, say these liberals, but only in rare cases. If African-Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites in their lifetime, it must be because of “a few bad policies” rather than a pervasive institutional bigotry seeking to defend and extend power in the hands of a historically white political class. Similarly, if African-Americans are routinely killed by police officers without any consideration of due process, it must be because of “a few bad apples” instead of a endemic culture of racial profiling and prejudice throughout law enforcement agencies. Through their public platforms, these liberal talking heads set the limits of “acceptable” outrage. Movements that seek “dialogue,” piecemeal reform and symbolic concessions gain the stamp of approval. Those that demand drastic overhauls of the system or that white Americans become more self-aware of their racial privilege and its effects are labeled dangerous, foolish and self-defeating. (Noam Chomsky has covered this topic and the myth of the “liberal media” extensively, including how pundits suppress dissent by deciding what dissent should be.)

There is even the argument that, by giving more consideration to race and its role in politics and society, we are actually promoting white supremacy. In a September 2015 255px-welcome_to_harrison_billboardarticle, Conor Friedersdorf warned that white people encouraged to scrutinize race relations and how discrimination benefits them would come away not as humbled or more enlightened, but that they would embrace and celebrate their “whiteness.” Identity politics, he argued, would actually create more white supremacists. He instead endorses the long-standing, long-ridiculed “colorblind” approach: “I don’t see race.” The tragic irony of this, however, is that “colorblindness” does not do away with differentiation in politics, creating a united front. It serves instead to continue the muting of issues facing people of color, who go on chafing against institutions that are not colorblind, but in most cases were shaped precisely in order to include some and exclude others based on race. It is more important, however, to liberals like Friedersdorf that well-meaning whites not be “stigmatized” when they say or do something racist, but that they be “persuaded” to see the error of their ways. In this we see reflections of the liberal hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over protesters using violence against Trump supporters at Trump rallies. We also see echoes of the cringe-worthy praise heaped on Michelle Obama for hugging George W. Bush, the man responsible for an illegal war that killed thousands, and the fundraising by liberals to rebuild a bombed GOP headquarters in a bastion of racism and transphobia.

Neither identity politics nor its mythical cousin, “political correctness,” caused Trump to win the 2016 presidential election. There was no surge of angry white voters who, after being forced to examine their whiteness, picked up the Turner Diaries and started preparing for a race war. According to the exit polls, he won the white vote by a margin similar to that of Mitt Romney in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. Secondly, while the media has made much about the so-called “alt-right,” the far-right white nationalists on the fringe of U.S. conservatism, they represent only a small portion of the 60 million U.S. voters who cast their ballots for Trump. They did not guide Trump into the White House; rather, Trump validated their open racism and confrontational manner with his own toxic views and behavior. This is not to deny that racism permeates almost all aspects of U.S. politics (as Drum did). It is erroneous, however, to argue that white supremacy alone cemented Trump’s electoral triumph. Notably, he won with fewer votes than what John McCain and Mitt Romney lost with when they ran against Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because what she offered in terms of social issues was a watered-down version of identity politics, a cultural stevenandalangc3phenomenon known as “wokeness.” The term first started to gain major traction in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when activists would encourage others to “stay woke” to the reality of white supremacy, to not fall back into the false consciousness that systemic racism exists only in the past. It quickly became a buzzword, however, and to be “woke” became a fashionable way for white people to indicate they are one of the “good ones.” Social consciousness gave way to self-righteousness and self-admiration societies. Online, white people desperate to prove how “woke” they are would yell at each other about the sufficient checking of privilege, why a popular TV show was “problematic,” and speak effusively in therapeutic terms about their white guilt. Jia Tolentino called this “performative allyship” in an article about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wearing a “Stay Woke” shirt even though the social media giant has a huge problem with diversity and inclusion. “Wokeness” turned confronting prejudice — a difficult process centered around introspection — and turned it into a narcissistic peacock-style way of signaling how perceptive and sophisticated a person you are while simultaneously doing nothing to combat the social ills you are clearly conscious of. A prime example would be a “woke” white person witnessing a hate crime on the street, and rather than saying or doing something, going home and writing a blog post about how witnessing racist violence traumatized them as an observer.

White supremacy is not a fad, as Kevin Drum claims, but performative allyship is, and the Hillary Clinton campaign embraced it totally. Rather than offer anything concrete to the Latino-American community, as someone truly concerned with identity politics might have done, she dubbed herself everyone’s “abuela.” Yes, she made criminal justice reform part of her campaign, but she never fully tackled how the legacy of her and her husband’s crime bill and welfare reform in the 1990s impacted to the African-American community. Her reaction to being confronted by protesters about her having called black teenagers “super-predators” and similar comments was not to own her history and speak about it, but to campaign less and less to avoid such interactions. Her praise about Nancy Reagan and her “action” on the AIDS crisis reminded the LGBT community that, far from being an outspoken proponent of marriage equality, she held back support until it became clear that it would become law — thereby making it electorally safe for her. Time and time again during the 2016 campaign, the sincerity of Clinton’s progressive principles were called out, either by protesters or the candidate’s own gaffes, and the response each time was to retreat and wait out the media storm rather than address the issues behind them. Again, no actual confrontation of privilege or prejudice, no genuine introspection.

320px-donald_trump_and_hillary_clinton_during_united_states_presidential_election_2016The Clinton campaign centered itself on a bourgeois feminism that relied heavily on a shallow, hollow feminist discourse that avoided facts and figures and played strictly on emotion. When Bernie Sanders supporters attacked Clinton, many Clinton supporters in the media attacked “Bernie bros,” left-wing misogynists who hated Hillary not for her convictions (or lack thereof) but simply because she was a woman. The “Bernie bro” label even extended to women (including women of color) critical of Clinton. Supporting Bernie Sanders became “problematic.” To be “with her” was to be “stronger together,” a catchy slogan with zero substance behind it, with no real plan to elevate the oppressed. The strategy only had credibility because  Clinton was running against an openly xenophobic and sexist major presidential candidate. Her stance on social issues did not need to be deep because the alternative was a billionaire buffoon who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and who promised to build a wall to keep out the “criminals and rapists” coming from Mexico to steal U.S. jobs and corrupt “American culture.”

And yet she still lost.

Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because Hillary Clinton depressed her own turnout. Rather than offer anything meaningful to traditional Democratic voters (young people, people of color, the urban poor, etc.) she took their votes for granted and attempted to woo moderate Republicans. The exit polls prove that her campaign botched invigorating groups that turned out for large numbers for Obama. Granted, the polls and Trump’s numerous scandals no doubt lured many would-be Clinton voters into complacency. Also, strict voter ID laws passed by Republican state legislatures suppressed Democratic votes. Yet, if these had been the main reasons for Clinton’s defeat, the election would have been much closer than it was. In several key battleground states where there were no harsh voter ID laws on the books, Clinton still under-performed compared to Obama in 2012. Her failure to do so cannot only be attributed to an absence of economic populism in her message. She also failed to inspire social groups whose support she took for granted, who she assumed would gravitate to her clear “wokeness.” When they did not, many Clinton supporters leaped at the chance to blame third party voters, despite there being no assurance those voters would have voted for Clinton under different circumstances. Some have even sought to defend Clinton’s “base” from the loss, when critics are clearly attacking Clinton for her inability to inspire and lead.

The clearest evidence that the Clinton campaign did not engage in identity politics was its decision to use “America is already great” as a counter-argument to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” No one who seriously acknowledges the long U.S. history of marginalizing, repressing and murdering disadvantaged communities would make the assertion that the United States has ever been great; rather, we are a deeply flawed society with imperfect institutions striving to create a more just and equal country for those hitherto underrepresented and disenfranchised. “America is already great” has 320px-trump_sign_-_2016-11-08_283022776178329traditionally been the position of social conservatives in this country, those reactionaries who look back at our past with rose-tinted glasses and visualize the 1950s as a “wholesome” and “honorable” society full of white, God-fearing nuclear families. It was also a time of rampant racism and sexism. For the Clinton campaign to have adopted that stance, to have totally abandoned “hope” and “change” for the sickening, delusional patriotism typically characteristic of the Republican Party, illustrates just how utterly divorced the Clinton campaign was from even the basest elements of identity politics.

The U.S. left needs to remain committed to identity politics, but it needs to be honest and devoted to that commitment. Posturing and platitudes are not enough. We need to admit that there needs to be a social revolution in the United States, no matter how much milquetoast liberals protest otherwise. We do not need to be “tolerant” of hatred and we do not need to “persuade” white supremacists. On the contrary, we need to be more resolved against backwards reactionary politics than ever. If Democrats want a coalition with the same intensity and numbers as 2008, they cannot just pin their hopes on another relatively unknown charismatic politician of color coming along. They need to be willing to endorse policies and programs that acknowledge most people are deeply dissatisfied and alienated with the status quo in this country. They need to pair serious economic policy proposals that help the poor with meaningful social justice agendas that provide more than token representation or snail’s-pace improvements. For that to happen, though, the U.S. left must organize and remain as fired up as it was on November 9th, 2016. Most importantly, though, we have to honest about what went right — and what went wrong.

Hands Off Syria: Learning a Harsh Lesson

It seems inconceivable that U.S. decision-makers would be considering military 300px-no_war_on_syria-svgintervention in Syria given our recent dismal record of accomplishment when it comes to meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led not to the blossoming of democracy and free market economics, as neoconservatives hoped, but instead destabilized the country and led to nightmarish sectarian violence. The U.S. occupation fueled anti-Western sentiment and acted as a boon for jihadist recruitment. These, in turn, created the conditions for the ascendancy of Islamic State, its 2014 capture of Mosul and its spread into Syria. The U.S. had also helped make possible the ISIS expansion into Syria by training and supplying Syrian rebels, a CIA operation now regarded as a failure and a waste of billions of dollars. Yet, despite this string of calamities, the Beltway “foreign policy elite” is chomping at the bit for a more hawkish Syria strategy than President Barack Obama has been willing to give them. With a Hillary Clinton on November 8 almost assured, it seems very likely that those elites will get their druthers.

U.S. elections rarely concern themselves with issues, but this year in particular we have heard more about pneumonia, tax returns and e-mails than about policy positions. It was only during the debates that Clinton came out clearly in favor of a no-fly zone in Syria — not to bring down the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, but to prevent the Assad government from bombing civilians in rebel-held territory. The obvious problem with this is that Russia is actively assisting Assad, and Moscow would use surface-to-air missile systems so the bombings could continue. Assuming, however, that the bombings did end, how would that prevent the sieges leading to starvation in Homs? How would a n0-fly zone stop the car bombs and mortar shells in East Aleppo? These questions are becoming secondary and even tertiary to the insistence that the U.S. do something, anything, to combat the war crimes being committed by Assad’s forces with Russian support.

There is a compelling moral argument to stop those crimes. Who can see the images of the 320px-wounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_aleppodisplaced, traumatized people in Syria and not feel a visceral urge to stop the suffering? At the same time, however, very few advocates of escalation openly call for open war, especially a war between two global powers. The question therefore becomes, “How can we have 100% safe military intervention?” In other words, how can we have war without the casualties? It is an absurd premise, but it is the one upon which modern U.S. foreign policy typically rests. According to this dysfunctional thinking, unmanned drones and “smart” bombs translate to interventions that are more affordable domestically because there are “no boots on the ground.” Vietnam and Iraq became untenable for the U.S. government in part because of widely circulated images of U.S. soldiers wounded and dying in hostile environs characterized by insurgents striking from the shadows. Granted, U.S. bombings and drone strikes cause plenty of “collateral damage” but the deaths of innocent non-Americans are tolerated if they serve the “higher purpose” of U.S. foreign policy.

For example, it became imperative in 2011 for the West to intervene in the Libyan civil war to prevent the massacre of dissidents by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s loyalists. The NATO air campaign that followed helped bring down Qaddafi, but it also killed at least 72 civilians, one-third of them children. The Obama administration thought it had escaped the errors of Afghanistan and Iraq by not committing to “regime-change,”but by neglecting reconstruction entirely has led to Libya becoming a breeding ground for militias associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Five years after the NATO bombings, the U.S. is now bombing Libya again, this time in the hopes of dislocating the jihadist bases located there. Obama now considers the Libya intervention the “worst mistake” of his time in office.

His soon-to-be successor, Hillary Clinton, had been the swing vote that had green-lighted the 2011 intervention. In 2002, she had been one of the many U.S. senators to vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq war, although she now claims to regret it. Her stances on Libya and 320px-us_navy_110319-n-7293m-003_uss_barry_28ddg_5229_fires_tomahawk_cruise_missiles_in_support_of_operation_odyssey_dawnSyria suggest that her regret may have more to do with electoral calculus than the learning of any lessons about the high price of so-called “low-risk intervention.” Publicly, she blames the failure of Libya on the rebels themselves: “[Libya] is a perfect case where people who’ve never had that opportunity to run anything, manage anything, even participate in meaningful politics, understandably are not even sure what questions to ask.” The absence of strong institutions in Libya, however, was plain for anyone to foresee. Qaddafi’s political power was based on tribal networks and alliances, and without power centralized in his hands, a power vacuum formed that was filled by religious warlords. It was exactly what had happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was purged from government post-invasion: the U.S. policy of “de-Baathification” led to the undermining and collapse of state power, leading to unrest and violence.

There is every reason to believe that the same would happen in Syria, in the unlikely event that Assad could be forced from power. The Assad family has for decades laden the government with relatives and sycophants. Ironically, the individuals who could have posed any internal threat to Assad were killed in a July 2012 rebel attack. As in countless other regimes across the world, the government has been ordered to conform to a binary choice: the status quo or anarchy. In such situations, for a peaceful transition to occur, the change has to be supported by the leader as well as the most powerful institutions. In Syria today, Assad remains firmly in control, with Russian and Iranian support — and no shortage of external enemies to blame his problems on, from ISIS to the United States.

Even if Vladimir Putin is bluffing and Russia backs down rather than stand by Assad until 320px-al-nusra_front_members_in_maarrat_al-numanthe bitter end, it will take rebels storming Damascus, Aleppo and other key cities. Such a scenario would mean even more dead and displaced civilians, to say nothing of even more damage to the basic infrastructure. Who fills the void left by Assad? Most likely, it will either be ISIS or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (otherwise known as the Al-Nusra Front, or al-Qaeda in the Levant). Instead of Bashar al-Assad, Syria will either be controlled by fanatics promoting worldwide jihad or “just” jihad in one region. The only way that the U.S. gets a government it favors is through hands-on reconstruction, and again, evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq shows how unsuccessful that can be.

It must be stressed that this deviling choice — between brutal autocrats and barbaric zealots — can also be credited, at least in part, to U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the U.S. lent its support to corrupt authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders if they opposed communism and aided us in the obtaining of oil. In 1953, the CIA infamously saddam_rumsfeldmasterminded the coup that overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran. When the Iranian clergy revolted against the U.S.-supported monarchy in 1979, Washington aided Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as a military dictator from 1971 to 2000, slowly gained U.S. trust for his reputation as a pragmatist. Assad supported the nationalist Baath Party in Syria not out of ideology, but its pan-Arabism provided him with a political platform that he would not otherwise have had as a member of a religious minority. After the 1973 Arab–Israeli War proved that the Soviet Union would not actually back its Arab allies against Israel, Syria joined the region-wide shift into the U.S. sphere of influence. In 1991, Syria even joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War against Iraq. When Hafez did and was succeeded by his son Bashar, there was speculation that he would keep Syria a bulwark against religious and political radicals while simultaneously reforming his regime to be more open and accountable. Of course, rather than share power, the Assad family has consolidated its own and destroyed the opposition.

That the U.S. supports a large number of dictators globally is hardly news. Yet not enough attention is paid to how we also support one of the strongholds of radical Islam, the 320px-flag_of_saudi_arabia-svgKingdom of Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud had come to power in 1932 by partnering with the local clergy, who preached Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that promotes a fundamentalist religious lifestyle. After discovering rich oil fields in the country in 1937, the U.S. government struck a deal with the Saudi royals: the U.S. would enjoy privileged access to Saudi petroleum as long as it stayed out of Saudi affairs, including its religious practices. To this day, the U.S. government stands by Riyadh, even as it carries out terrible human rights abuses. We also support it even as it sponsors the exporting of Salafism around the world, where its literal and extreme interpretation of Islam has fostered the growth of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other jihadists. (Qatar, another oil-rich Gulf autocracy, is also a key sponsor of al-Qaeda, Libyan jihadists, and most notably has provided an office for exiled Taliban leaders in the capital of Doha.)

There is no shortage of recent examples of blind U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. One was President Obama vetoing bipartisan legislation that made it possible for families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attacks to sue the Saudi government for its complicity (Congress overturned the veto). Another was a “triple-tap” bombing by Saudi planes of a funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people using U.S. munitions. This was so egregious that a U.S. official said that Saudi Arabia did not have a “blank check” to commit war crimes. This was a slap on the wrist compared to the heavy-handed rhetoric the U.S. government uses against its enemies, but in the context of U.S.-Saudi relations, the incident stands out as a rare case of Washington daring to chastise Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen, widely ignored in the Western media, is worth noting because it also features an al-Qaeda affiliate — Ansar al-Sharia — fighting on the side of Saudi Arabia and its coalition (all U.S. allies) against the Houthi government. Yemen, by the way, is suffering a major humanitarian catastrophe, with a historic drought and water shortage, all exacerbated by a civil war. Interestingly, the U.S. and its “foreign policy elite” are not ringing any alarm bells to intervene in the Yemeni situation.

Perhaps because Saudi Arabia called dibs first.

The End of Revolution: The Directory, 1795-1799

In July 1794, the Jacobin government overseeing the French Revolution had come crashing 224px-bouchot_-_le_general_bonaparte_au_conseil_des_cinq-centsdown. The bourgeoisie had united in opposition to its extreme left-wing policies, whereas the worn-out urban poor could no longer muster the energy to sustain their support for the Jacobins’ grand design for remaking French society top to bottom. It is more apt to say that the Revolution became less revolutionary rather than less violent after Thermidor, as Robespierre and 70 of his allies were executed after their overthrow. In Lyon, too, hundreds of Jacobin supporters were killed. The Terror was met with its equal and opposite reaction as those who had once wielded influence and power became its victims. Now able to pursue their own agenda, the new government – made up of the middle class moderates who had survived the Terror – repealed the centralizing powers of the government, including the price controls on food. This, of course, led to the resumption of riots over bread and a return to famine. The working classes had given their tacit support to the downfall of the Jacobins, but there was still an enormous tension between their interest and those of the bourgeoisie, given their inherent contrasts.

305px-1er_prairial_an_iiiThe tension became the driving force behind the Revolt of 1 Prairial Year III (May 20, 1795). An enormous crowd of the sans-culottes, galvanized by the usual pamphleteering and agitation, invaded the National Convention and even killed a deputy, demanding that their employment and their provision be addressed. This popular demonstration distinguished itself from previous incidents in that it lacked a bourgeois political force supporting the sans-culottes. The Jacobins had been that force, and it had been fiercely dismantled. Accordingly, the bourgeois government faced no real opposition when it used security forces to disperse the crowd and to occupy rebellious neighborhoods. No one class had been able, throughout the Revolution, to fully hold political power while still in this transitory stage. The moderate bourgeoisie who now ruled had done so after the elimination of much stronger rivals, of which potent remnants remained.

The new government was called the Directory and comprised of 500 deputies elected by 320px-13vendc3a9miaireproperty-owners who qualified to vote. Their first challenge came as a royalist uprising on 13 Vendémiaire (October 5, 1795). Those Frenchmen seeking to restore the monarchy had not been entirely defeated, and were now receiving great support from the European powers allied against France, especially Great Britain. After a series of royalist military successes, monarchist sympathizers rebelled in Paris and attacked the Convention. Once again, the bourgeoisie depended on the military rather than popular action to save themselves. The leader of the forces defending the government at the palace was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose leading role in the crushing of this particular revolt transformed him overnight from a mere artillery officer to one of the leading French generals. His further triumphs leading French troops in Italy in the coming years would serve to further bolster his standing and position him for his ultimate seizure of power.

In the meantime, the Parisian working class learned valuable lessons from its past defeat. babeufFrançois-Noël Babeuf, known as Gracchus Babeuf, was quickly emerging as a popular left-wing critic of the Directory as France’s economic condition worsened. Paris workers, who had once been so closely linked with the Jacobins, feared that other cities and regions would benefit at their expense. Babeuf began the process of organizing them into crude revolutionary cadres, nodes in a network he termed the “Conspiracy of the Equals.” Like the Jacobins, Babeuf and his disciples were romantic in their view of an equal society without any sort of private property, but their impetus to organize underlines how working class radicals gradually learned to stop relying on bourgeois benefactors and commit themselves fully to revolution. In May 1796, Babeuf felt that it was the time to strike as France became more divided and the economic crisis intensified. The government learned his plans, however, and he along with his key allies were executed. Throughout the rest of 1796, various cells of Jacobins and other left-wing dissenters were jailed and typically killed as enemies of the state. Unable to win over the working classes by providing them their demands, the state returned repeatedly to repressive methods. Indeed, much of the Directory period would be defined by a cycle of internal upheavals from the right and left as an endless war and national bankruptcy continued. The need for control, even if it came in the form of a dictatorship, crystallized. The bourgeoisie even turned from its moderates to those who favored a constitutional monarchy. In other words, it became possible that France would actually vote for royal restoration.

The problem was that there was no way for the remaining classes to reconcile themselves. The sans-culottes had been defeated along with the Jacobins; peasants, to the extent they 320px-buonaparte_closing_the_farce_of_egalitc3a9were politically active, supported absolute royalism and the Church; and the bourgeoisie, who desired liberal policies more than anything. The solution became for the bourgeois not to pursue a liberal democracy but a liberal dictatorship. Elites inside the Directory decided to make the popular (and reform-minded) Napoleon their figurehead. After the coup of 19 Brumaire (November 20, 1799), Napoleon became a “consul,” in reference to the highest elected office of the Roman Republic, who wielded executive authority on behalf of the state. Gradually, of course, Napoleon undermined his fellow consuls and other rivals, setting up his declaring himself Emperor in 1804. In its relatively brief lifetime, the French Empire did in fact adhere to many Enlightenment values while keeping the militarism and authoritarianism of the old Bourbon regime.

Napoleon’s ultimate defeat would mean a Bourbon restoration did finally occur, but the clock simply could not be turned back. There would no longer be obscene aristocratic privileges or noble monopolies. The bourgeoisie would not abide exclusion from the political process. Employment and the general welfare of the urban poor remained problematic, but the working classes would repeat their tendency to resist when pushed to the limit. The French Revolution never arrived at a definite final product; hence part of the oft-cited quip attributed to the Chinese communist official Zhou Enlai that it was “too early to say” what the effects of the Revolution were. The Revolution clearly drove the European feudal system into extinction. The realization of the philosophical ideals behind it, however, both by moderate liberals and left-wing radicals remains elusive. We have not yet created a society where reason and individual merit inform all public decisions, no more than we have created a classless civilization without poverty or want. Yet, the Western status quo pays lip service to Enlightenment virtues even as we slide deeper into a highly managed bourgeois oligarchy. When democracy produces results elites do not like, however, we see the thin masquerade fall and we are confronted with the contempt the ruling class has for its subjects. The present system persists because the bourgeoisie has purchased their support through public services and benefits. As those policies have been eroded by recent economic crises, we are seeing a return to greater populist politics and unrest. We are not seeing the sort of famine and hardship present at the outset of the French Revolution, but a new sort of grievance: generations being born worse off than the previous ones, their basic needs more insecure. There is a general sense of disappointment with existing regimes but few clear plans for revolution or founding an alternative society. This is something that we have in common with the French Revolution, even if we are separated by centuries of political movements.

The French Revolution was at the setting-out point, the first major excursion into political practice deeply divided from the old system. Not seeing the need to unify, believing in the righteousness of their own causes, the different factions in play acted only against one another unless it was politically expedient. The strongest alliance to emerge was the one between the Jacobins and the sans-culottes, but even that loose coalition fell apart when it hindered the specific ambitions of Robespierre. Future revolutionaries would learn from this mistake and actively court other classes. The middle class Bolsheviks preached to the proletariat while working class Nazis won over the panicked German middle class. The new elites learned from the Revolution as well. They threw all their weight behind incremental reform and small progress – a theme commonly seen today. We are told what the Jacobins did was wrong, but it is unclear what a “proper” social revolution looks like. We learn a great deal about the victims of the Terror but very little about the horrors that influenced it, or about the victims of the royalist forces before, during and after the Revolution. The French Revolution now exists in a vacuum, disconnected from its context and historical structures, so it can be denounced cleanly, without also having to condemn popular struggle, self-determination and political courage.

We can and should sympathize with the French Revolution, because even with its excesses, it was a move forward on the path of social progress. It revealed the rottenness at the core of the feudal system and made plain that classes that had once been outside politics could take political power. It showed that clean breaks with the past are in fact possible when people are properly mobilized and driven to action by their grievances. It also revealed that there is an unavoidable and clear divergence between bourgeois and working class interests and the desired outcome of participatory government. It is this last revelation that we should take heed of, as we enter a period where ordinary people are choosing extreme candidates with extreme views as expressions of their discontent.

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Woronoff, Denis. The Thermidorean regime and the Directory 1794-1799. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.

The Fall of the Girondins

The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.

Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.

Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.

In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.

Understanding the Terror

The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.

The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.

182px-terreur_nantesThis is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.

Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.

In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.

On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.

Assessment

Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.

It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.

Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.

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