Who Mourns Mugabe?

robert_mugabe_in_moscow2c_may_2015The Nation has published an excellent and extremely valuable article by James North, a freelance journalist, about the relationship between the British colonial legacy in Zimbabwe and the recent events culminating in the resignation of President Robert Mugabe. This article is so important because it challenges the dominant narrative in the Western media that treats the present condition of Zimbabwe as singly caused by the policies of Mugabe alone. While it cannot be denied that Mugabe made an indelible impact on the country, helping to bring down its white-minority government and then ruling as president for the last 37 years, intense skepticism should greet the assertion that one man alone, however influential, made Zimbabwe what it is today. Instead of limiting our analysis to the last 40 or so years, we should go further, to a colonial era that began in the 19th century and which only ended less than forty years ago.

180px-cecilrhodesWoefully few people in the West know that Zimbabwe used to be named Rhodesia, and fewer still probably realize that Rhodesia was named after the most infamous agent of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, whose estate still funds the highly-coveted Rhodes Scholarship postgraduate award to study at the University of Oxford. Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC) subjugated the Matabele, Ndebele, and Shona peoples and conquered their homelands. The Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun, first saw “wartime” use when British soldiers utilized them in the First Matabele War (1893-1894), and would become a bloody symbol of cruel imperial conquest during the “Scramble for Africa.” White veterans of the BSAC massacres received land grants, with the native Africans their indentured tenants. The southern regions of Rhodesia, the territory that would become Zimbabwe, contained fertile farmland, as well as rich deposits of chrome, gold, and nickel. The United Kingdom eventually annexed the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923, incorporating it into the British Empire, although it remained the affluent white minority largely ruled itself. It was not until the “winds of change” began blowing in the immediate post-World War II era that the prospect of decolonization became tenable to the imperial powers. It should be stressed, however, that most white settlers in Zimbabwe never considered it a plausible option.

This was partly a result of the colonial context that distinguished Rhodesia from its neighboring British holdings. Kenya, for example, was for settlers belonging to the upper classes: retired elites going on safari and kicking up their feet in social clubs. Rhodesia with its lucrative farms and mines attracted settlers in need of wealth, who had fewer resources to fall back on and thus had more to lose by giving up their racial dominion over the black population. This is not to say that white settlers in Kenya embraced black rule with enthusiasm, but they realized that they could retain their status while co-existing with the native Africans. White Rhodesians could not countenance any such co-existence; their status depended on their political power and their control over the economy. They knew that their privileged position depended on the exploitation and repression of the black majority, and they feared deprivation of their wealth and property or the outbreak of a “race war.” They uttered the rhetoric of Enoch Powell in the United Kingdom and pro-segregation “Jim Crow” politicians in the U.S. They voiced fears of a race war, of retribution killings, because they were intimately aware of the injustices and violence they themselves had inflicted on black Africans.

422px-congo_crisis_collageUnder international pressure due to shifting norms regarding imperialism, the British government of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson grudgingly agreed to a policy of “no independence before majority rule,” meaning that the United Kingdom would not grant Southern Rhodesia independence from its empire unless it created a multiracial political system. To a certain extent, this was because the white ruling class refused to give up its privileges; although they made up only 5 percent of the population, the status quo favored them politically, economically, and culturally. To add to the historical context, however, the slow rate of change following independence in the Belgian Congo had resulted in spontaneous uprisings by the black population. In response to violence against white settlers who had remained, the Belgian government intervened militarily and supported Congolese secessionists. Although the United Nations sent peacekeepers, they refused to aid the black nationalist Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, restore order, so the Soviet Union sent military assistance. Faced with competing Soviet influence in Africa, leading Western governments had Lumumba captured and killed after a coup d’état, leading Western nations eventually rallied behind a stable anti-communist military dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. Most white Rhodesians felt betrayed by a British government that had previously granted them the autonomy and freedom to institute racial segregation an economy centered on the exploitation of native workers was arbitrarily altering the arrangement, and so – in conscious imitation of the United States – declared their own independence. While this led to the introduction of economic sanctions against Rhodesia and its government was formally unrecognized by all Western countries, the U.S. government undermined them through the 1971 Byrd Amendment, which stated that, if the U.S. imported valuable raw materials from communist countries, it had to import them from non-communist ones. This meant that the U.S. had an obligation to import chrome and nickel from Rhodesia, even though this meant financially supporting its illegal white supremacist government. From 1971 to 1977 (when Jimmy Carter finally pushed Congress to repeal the amendment), the U.S. ensured that the sting of sanctions did not harm the white-ruled Rhodesians too much, and its ultimate revocation had to do with an oversupply of foreign ferrochrome that pushed down prices for the U.S. own ferrochrome industry.

The repeal of the Byrd Amendment hurt the Rhodesian economy, but the major turning point for white-ruled governments in southern Africa came with the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 1974, when radical leftists among the military overthrew the Caetano government in Lisbon and granted independence to Mozambique and Angola. The Portuguese colonial empire was one of the last to dissolve, but when it did fall, the changes it wrought were immense: Marxist leaders in Mozambique cut off Rhodesia from rail access to ports, meaning its trade and industry had to go through apartheid South Africa. Angola, too, aligned itself with the Soviet bloc after Soviet military assistance and Cuban troops intervened in its civil war. With the balance of power reversed, it was no longer feasible that 274,000 Rhodesian whites could continue to govern over 6.1 million black Africans, with the whites outnumbered 22 to 1.

hector_pietersonThe National Party in South Africa, the stalwart defenders of apartheid, faced a similar reality, and a growing number of its members accepted that, at the least, apartheid needed to be reformed. The collective Western conscious prefers to imagine the anti-apartheid struggle as a largely bloodless affair, a non-violent movement, omitting the hundreds of black protesters (many of them children) murdered in the 1960 Sharpesville massacre and the 1976 Soweto uprising. They also choose to forget the African National Congress’ own violent methods in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the U.S. and British governments classifying it as a terrorist organization. It was only after the economic decline and final collapse of the ANC’s main benefactor – the Soviet Union – in the late 20th century that it took a more conciliatory posture, which coincided with the rise of reformist F.W. de Klerk premiership that saw the writing on the wall.

In Rhodesia, black rule came a decade sooner than it did to its south, thanks in large part to aid from communist states. In addition to Soviet-Cuban assistance, Chinese advisers and weapons went to African liberation movements; Mugabe, as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) independence movement, primarily received support from Beijing rather than Moscow. The Soviets preferred their historical asset in the colony, the trade union leader Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). As Soviet policy was to mobilize industrial workers, ZAPU support lay in the cities, whereas ZANU was much stronger in the much more abundant rural areas. A main reason for this gulf of popularity was the ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), the armed wing of ZANU, were the primary combatants in the guerilla war against the Rhodesian government. They earned the loyalty of their fellow blacks, so much so that being a “war veteran” is still a position of honor in Zimbabwe.

180px-mugabe_1979_aMugabe was deeply involved in the guerilla war. He was a committed Marxist militant, having become radicalized after a decade in prison from 1964 to 1974 (he was originally a teacher before entering politics). While imprisoned, Mugabe was tortured and denied a temporary pardon after his three-year-old died of severe inflammation of the brain. Upon his release, he went to Mozambique and found an ally in that country’s Marxist leader, Samora Machel. It was Machel more than anyone who urged Mugabe to moderate his positions, who induced him to participate in peace negotiations mediated by the British government in 1979. Mugabe believed he could have defeated the Smith regime military and was hesitant to compromise, but Machel argued – quite logically – that an exodus of whites would do damage to a post-colonial economy. Machel helped broker negotiations at Lancaster House in London with the British government mediating, and on his advice, Mugabe agreed to black political power but with most of the arable land in the hands of a small number of white farmers. Mugabe also permitted the politicians of the past white supremacist government to continue to participate in politics, including the unrepentant prime minister, Ian Smith, who had overseen the war against the nationalist freedom fighters. Mugabe, perhaps against his better judgment, agreed to compromise rather than a reckoning, and did not push for land redistribution.

Mugabe and ZANU did not have to steal power; they easily won elections held after the Lancaster House agreement. Nkomo and ZAPU, by default, became junior partners, but they aspired for greater representation than they received. Division between political parties also evolved into division between ethnic groups; the Ndebele people, based in the Matabeleland region in western Zimbabwe, became associated with ZAPU, while the Shona people became associated with ZANU. Fearing competition for power, Mugabe repressed ZAPU through the early 1980s, including a series of massacres carried out by a North Korean-trained unit called the Fifth Brigades. This pogrom is referred to as “Gukurahundi,” a Shona phrase meaning “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” In many ways, Mugabe was imitating the British Empire when it mowed down the Ndebele a century before with the Maxim gun, as well as the Rhodesian soldiers that slaughtered them in the wilderness. Political violence was learned behavior from imperialism and colonialism. While this does not excuse the Gukurahundi, it does help to understand why Mugabe reacted to dissent with violence rather than a pluralist liberal parliamentarian approach. He also recognized that his proximity to apartheid South Africa put him in a precarious position. In the 1980s, Johannesburg was still committed to white supremacy, and just as Mugabe had raided Rhodesia from Mozambique, the South African military struck into Zimbabwe.

320px-zanu-pf_youth_leagueEconomically, Mugabe pursued an agenda of raising social spending, and in important areas – education, health care, housing – standards improved for the black majority. Western multinational corporations owned monopolies on advanced technology, however, so the more regulatory, government-interventionist policies adopted by Mugabe led to capital flight. Economic growth stalled. In the 1980s, the rise of the neoliberal consensus, protectionism and emphasis on local production was anathema to the industrialized nations. Moreover, because the government could only take land from white farmers if they were willing to sell, the acquisition of farmland and its redistribution to black farmers went slower than Mugabe had promised. The average war veteran resented that he had sacrificed blood and sweat for a revolution. It was Matabeleland where the inequality in land ownership was very acute. Mugabe accepted this until the 1990s, when a Land Acquisition Act granted the government to seize any land it wished, if financial compensation was made. As part of the decolonization process, the British government had promised money to buy out white farmers, but London opposed a policy of mandatory acquisition. When Tony Blair’s Labour Party came to power in 1997, the new international development secretary, Clare Short, denied that the U.K. had any obligation to pay for land purchases, citing her own Irish background as evidence the British government had no connection to the colonizers of the imperial period. In 2000, paramilitaries loyal to Mugabe invaded white farms, and in some instances, killed white farmers and their workers. As it was the war veterans who felt owed the land, and since Mugabe had previously accepted the status quo, it is questionable how much this “fast-track” land reform came from Mugabe, or was him acquiescing to social forces stirring in his power base. As his abrupt downfall shows, his hold on power was dependent on military support; once he lost this, he lost power.

After the “fast-track” land reform started, Mugabe may have mollified the veterans, but he had triggered an implosion of the Zimbabwean economy. Capital flows into the country fell to almost zero, with the government facing cutbacks in social spending as well as falling incomes, rising prices, and accelerating poverty. In the 2000s, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed. In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe, leading to Mugabe accusing Tony Blair of racism. Critically, however, Mugabe enjoyed some support from the ANC government in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki. From the 1990s to the present, South Africa had been the closest thing to an ally that Zimbabwe had. While the Western narrative around Mugabe makes him appear as a universally loathed tyrant, many black South Africans regard Mugabe as a hero of the independence movement. With income inequality itself a persistent problem in South Africa as well, there is also some consideration for violence against white farmers and the appropriation of their property. Understandably, those who themselves remember the brutality of white supremacy in southern Africa are the most compassionate to the fury unleashed against a class of people who, in recent memory, profited from colonialism.

emmerson_mnangagwaAs time went on, Mugabe became emblematic of the mythical African “Big Man” forming in Western popular culture: authoritarian, reliant on violence, clinging to socialist ideals, manipulating ethnic cleavages. In truth, he was very weak. As early as 2000 impeachment proceedings began again him, only to be stopped by the erstwhile Mugabe loyalist and now his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was minister of state security during the massacres in Matabeleland. Mugabe’s replacement with Mnangagwa illustrates that true power lies in the hands of the war veterans, the traditional ruling elite and now the nascent bourgeoisie. There is no reason to believe that the Mnangagwa administration will be anything but another repressive kleptocracy, save that it may warm up to a dependent role in the international economy. Mnangagwa could go the way of Raul Castro in Cuba or his allies in China, and accept liberalization of the economy – as long as his pockets are lined in the process. Even if Mnangagwa wished it otherwise, he would likely have little choice in the matter. To paraphrase Marx, Mnangagwa may be making history, but he is not making it as he pleases.

Like Mugabe before him, Mnangagwa is inheriting a Zimbabwe wherein the only functional framework is one of guards protecting plunder – in other words, the colonial model. It may be more accurate to call it political organized crime. A handful of oligarchs govern through coercion, acting as quasi-law enforcement to safeguard their interests. Formal institutions are empty vessels beside the military. If we in the West complain about this state of affairs, we must also accept some responsibility for it. Western empires created the institutional arrangements and political norms in which political gangsters flourish, as those empires were criminal syndicates par excellence.

2000px-flag_of_the_prime_minister_of_rhodesia_1970-1979-svgWe must also be skeptical of the cottage industry that has emerged around Zimbabwe, such as the writings of the white Zimbabwean Peter Godwin. The same social conservatives of the 1970s who urged white Rhodesians to continue white rule lend support to the narrative that the choices of Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe, rather than the system they benefitted from and its long-term consequences. Rather than speculating what would have happened had the racist Rhodesian regime been utterly defeated and rapid land reform undertaken in 1980, we instead get laments for the breakdown of that regime. The premise underlying this discourse is that Victorian imperialism, while morally wrong, was a civilizing force, and that left to their own devices, black Africans forsake “good governance” (a non-parsimonious development term meaning Western institutions and values) and establish tin-pot dictatorships. This is framed in the context of human suffering, to illicit sympathy for the benevolent oppressor contrasted with the malevolent one. Compare this to the more explicitly racist case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who massacred nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015, and a photo of him wearing a jacket with the Rhodesian flag on it. In this image, the pining for the Rhodesia of yesterday over the Zimbabwe of today takes itself to its logical conclusion: black people are a threat to healthy white-run societies.

There is no denying that many Zimbabweans, black as well as white, greeted news of Mugabe’s resignation with celebration. Taking the position that structural factors matter more than the individual choices of one man does not pardon that man for his crimes. Yet the view that such choices and free will override structural parameters means those same parameters will produce the same outcomes. The role of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwean underdevelopment and the misery of its people is irrelevant next to the injustices perpetrated by the West, both in the past and present, whose shadows still loom large over an entire continent that still supplies more wealth than it takes in.

 

 

 

 

 

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Angry, White, Male and Utterly Insane

320px-portret_van_een_man004“I’ve passed the point of no return. You know when that is? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning than it is to continue to the end. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble when they were going to the moon. Somebody messed up and they had to get them back to Earth but first they had to go around the moon. They were out of contact for hours. Everybody waited breathlessly to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody will have to wait until I pop out.” — Bill Foster, Falling Down


After the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, Drexel University associate professor George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted that his belief that a form of aggrieved entitlement drove the shooter, a well-to-do middle-aged white man, to commit the massacre. “The narrative of white victimization has been gradually built over the past 40 years,” he wrote. As is customary, conservative critics hounded the Drexel administration over the comments, claiming Professor Ciccariello-Maher was blaming Donald Trump or Republicans for the slaughter in Nevada. Unfortunately, the Drexel administration wavered and suspended Professor Ciccariello-Maher, giving in to a chorus of far-right voices, emboldened after Trump’s victory in 2016, to claim that radical academics are promoting “racism against white people” or “cultural Marxism.” While the dominant narrative in U.S. political discourse is that individuals on the left wish to suppress views they disagree with, it is in fact conservatives who are squelching academic analysis.

Professor Ciccariello-Maher is not alone in linking the phenomenon of “angry white men” in the U.S. with acts of violence. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, wrote an entire book (published in 2013) on the aggrieved entitlement of white men. Some causes for white men’s anger have a basis in material conditions, such as the impact of off-shore outsourcing under globalization on working class men, or the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Other times, grievances may stem from evolving social norms and values that threaten the traditional dominance of white men in racial as well as gender relations. White nationalists complain that job-stealing immigrants will eclipse the country’s “white identity,” while “men’s rights activists” blame their “involuntary celibacy” on modern feminism. Whatever the source or reality of the deprivation, many white men in the U.S. present themselves as victims of oppression, even though the historical record clearly illustrates that the U.S was created by white men for white men.

320px-peinture_murale_de_lachilleion_28corfou29_28327885976029Kimmel directly links aggrieved entitlement to violence, citing a 1994 study by Richard Felson that found if a culture promotes retaliatory violence as acceptable, even praiseworthy, then men of all ages would be more likely to engage in violent behavior. In other words, regardless of why white men are angry, or who they are angry about, there is also the issue of what to do about it. Voting for Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump may be one outlet, but so are mass shootings and spree killings. In popular culture, the customary plot arc of a masculine hero seeking and attaining vengeance for an injustice, imposing his will and cleansing himself through destroying his enemy, reflects this. The quintessential example of this in Western literature is Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, who slays Hector after the Trojan prince kills Achilles’ beloved companion, Patroclus. Hector himself exhibits a traditional masculine virtue, seeking a valiant death even when it becomes clear that he is going to die. Many readers, including ancient ones, read hubris into the actions of Achilles and Hector, flaunting their warrior prowess, but it is also possible to see in their characters the embodiments of masculine pride. Achilles kills Hector not out of mere bloodlust, but as a requital of an injury. Hector, seeing the consequences of his actions, chooses to die courageously than to concede and be humbled. In these actions we see the template of the murder-suicide that has become the foundation for all mass shootings, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree to the November 2017 First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.


“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? … That’s me.” — Walt Kowalski, Gran Torino


It is important to note that men do not possess a genetic disposition to retaliatory 122px-visconti-sforza-11-fortitudeviolence. Men do not exit the womb with aggression coded into our DNA. It is not a “biological truth” that we must dominate others. Instead, this is learned behavior. Just as the ancient Greeks listened to the epics, boys today grow up with fathers, many of whom in the U.S. own at least one gun, that is it better to stand your ground (and your property, and your family, and your honor…) than to retreat. Boys become engrossed in contact sports, where the athletes who hit the hardest and show the most competitive spirit are the ones to emulate. They find leisurely gratification in gratuitously violent TV shows, movies, video games, and pornography. At the same time, many young white men find their behavior policed. Rather than receiving instant support from authority figures, young white men encounter challenges they are unprepared to face. They must confront a future where they may not be better off than their parents, where student loans and stagnant wage growth means they likely be working until they die. They must also confront elite institutions like corporations and political parties where even white men, unless they belong to a narrow 1% band of the upper crust, have less and less influence. In the meantime, they find themselves asked to confront their conscious and unconscious prejudices, to not only admit that white men have profited off the exploitation of women and people of color, but also to examine how they contribute to the ongoing racism and sexism of today. None of this is to say that white men are the most put-upon group in society; obviously, police officers are not shooting unarmed white boys in the back, and men do not face the same rate of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault as women do. While growing economic inequality among the white population in the U.S. is a failing of the system, it must be stressed that for much of the postwar period – from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s – the “Golden Age of Capitalism” was so named by white men because the prime benefactors were white men. After all, under Jim Crow and without equal rights, it was not a “Golden Age” for many people in the U.S. Tellingly, it was with the civil rights movement and the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment that the “angry white man” phenomenon first began.

herbert_marcuse_in_newton2c_massachusetts_1955Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist of the Frankfurt School, analyzed Western society during the postwar years in his 1947 work One-Dimensional Man, wherein he deconstructed the state-managed capitalism of his time through a Marxist as well as Freudian lens. The Western proletariat, he argued, had become integrated into the status quo, invested in the maintenance of the welfare state as well as culturally identifying with the owners of the means of production. To paraphrase Steinbeck, Americans did not conceive of themselves as poor, but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Although the West had obtained the wealth and technology to abolish work and to enable individuals to pursue their own creative potential, the exploitation of workers and other vulnerable social groups proceeded through the manipulation of what Freud called the death drive, our inherent impulse toward self-destruction. By playing on humanity’s instinctive aggression and competitiveness, modern society produces the energy needed to fuel the high levels of productivity and economic expansion it needs.

While the arguments of One-Dimensional Man offer an insightful indictment of the postwar era, its Keynesian consensus, and the atmosphere of conformity that captured Western life in the 1950s and early 1960s, the “modernity” described in its pages does not reflect present conditions. Marcuse himself became “the Father of the New Left” that arose in the late 1960s and 1970s, a broad intellectual movement that began on college campuses. While the labor movement remained important on the New Left, the movement really distinguished itself by its emphasis on identity issues: civil rights, gay rights, and equal rights for women. Whereas radical left-wingers had historically converged around labor issues, touting the proletariat as potentially revolutionary, the New Left idealized young intellectuals belonging to the countercultural Zeitgeist opposed to the Establishment. The 1960s-1970s counterculture era, however, while seeing important strides in areas such as civil rights and feminism, did not produce the promised social revolution. In contrast to Freudian death drives, Marcuse hitched his philosophical optimism to our will to live, the positive life-affirming instinct in humanity. What Marcuse did not anticipate was how consumerism could hijack the counterculture. Whereas society once offered a bland, one-size-fits-all life to the population (a suburban home, a picket fence, a Plymouth in the garage), it came to embrace rebellions and subversion (or, at least, the superficial substitute). The policy-driven collective action of the past became more about individual expression and a lifestyle choice. Instead of bettering society in concrete terms, the individual demonstrates their dissent by wearing a Che Guevara shirt, taking illegal recreational drugs, patronizing art deemed transgressive and seditious, and so on. A person could accrue the coolness of the rebel without the risk associated with the organization and agitation required in an effective social movement. The counterculture sold out.

320px-jessicaThis is not to say, however, that the New Left did nothing for social justice, just that it fell short of its more ambitious goals. It would be daunting to provide an itemized list of the contributions the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the gay liberation movement, and so on. Suffice to say that enough actual change took place (imperfect as it was) that from the nucleus of the “angry white man” took shape. It was they who gave Richard Nixon a mandate in 1968 and even more so in 1972 to annihilate the Black Panthers, to crack down on the students burning bras and draft cards on campuses, to reverse the trend of “moral decay” in the once most sacred of U.S. institutions. In this agenda we see many parallels to the aspirations of conservatives today: the reigning in of the Black Lives Matter movement, denigrated as terrorists; the condemnation of predominately African-American athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem; the policing of speech and behavior labeled “un-American” in higher education; the reversal of protections offered for women or marginalized groups, be it the weakening of Title IX, the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, and on and on. “A conservative,” said the conservative public intellectual William F. Buckley, “is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” And so, from the counterculture period of the late 20th century to the present, the angry white man has stood in opposition to every modicum of social progress made in the preceding decades. He is not just yelling, however. He is bullying women anonymously on social media. He is posting incitements to violence against women on message boards devoted to complaints about “femi-Nazis.” He is listening to talk radio and watching Fox News and learning who to hate. He is calling the cops on the “suspicious” African-American boy in his neighborhood. He is touching his female co-workers inappropriately. He consistently told that he is in danger, targeted by terrorists, impoverished by globalists, emasculated by women. He is afraid, embarrassed, frustrated that the transgressions and trespasses that once so easily forgiven and ignored are, to his inconvenience, bringing unfavorable effects. He finds himself in the uncharted territory of working for a woman, or losing a job to someone who is an outsider, foreign, whose patriotism is suspect. Finding no respite, confused, the angry white man lashes out. Betrayed by an Establishment he no longer perceives as responsive to him, he imposes himself instead on those around him who are weak. The mass murderer who carried out the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, Stephan Paddock, had a history of publicly berating his wife. The gunman responsible for the Sutherland Springs church shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic abuse and is believed to have targeted the church in an effort to kill his estranged second wife and her relatives.


“The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” — Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver


Connecting the “angry white man” as understood in a political context to the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and elsewhere is provocative because there seems nothing political about those massacres. Neither Paddock nor Kelley left behind manifestos like that of right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who perpetuated the 2011 Norway attacks as part of a crusade against Islam and “cultural Marxism.” In our highly partisan political climate, making such a connection triggers an automatic dismissal on the presumption that is mere mud-slinging. It might be less controversial to say that recent mass shootings by angry white men are not about politics but power (even though the difference is a matter of semantics). The “angry white man,” political pundits agree, is angered because of a seeming deprivation of power, which is manifest in all aspects of life: politically, economically, culturally, even in his personal relationships. He makes his own lack of a voice be heard by hurting others, which usually means those who are vulnerable to him in some way. When he makes the choice to embark on the ultimate display of power – to remove his fellow human beings from the face of the Earth – he ensures he will receive the attention he feels entitled to, even if it means lasts if the next media cycle. He also, like Hector, resolves to choose death – a self-inflicted gunshot wound or suicide by cop – as the price-tag attached to his doomed exhibition of destructive power. Thomas Frank once famously pointed out how people in Kansas were voting against their own economic self-interest by voting for a Republican Party bent on lowering corporate taxes and promoting deregulation. So too, in a much more extreme and existential sense, are the angry white men who carry out mass shootings taking an action that goes against their fundamental biological self-interest – their literal survival – by doing what used to be unimaginable and unthinkable and what now occurs almost daily. Rather than study this, however, the Establishment institutions – itself largely controlled by white men – encourages the absurd notion that these men are “lone wolves,” a collection of bad apples, mentally ill outliers. We cannot handle that their violent behavior might be associated with our systems and society.

240px-circle-a_red-svgAfter eight years of President Barack Obama and moderate progress in some social areas (same sex marriage, repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), we are seeing the latest resurgence of the “angry white man.” Yet why is the “angry white man” of today so much more violent than in previous decades? The answer might be gleamed in the counterculture movement that came after the hippies: the punks. Whereas the hippies envisioned better worlds, the punks of the 1970s and 1980s looked with clearer eyes at the world as it was and responded with an intense nihilism that fed intensely off the Freudian death drives. A rejection of the status quo ran through the punk subculture, but while the hippies had failed to propose a convincing alternative arrangement of society, the punks did not bother, or if they could be bothered, supported anarchy. At its best, this anarchy expressed itself as the individual having absolute freedom, but at its cynical worst, it meant entropy and chaos. From this sprang not idealism but apathy, giving rise to the slacker ethos of the 1990s, the grunge movement, and to the intense irony that throbs like a heartbeat through radical subcultures today. It is often very difficult to separate sincerity from satire among radical voices in the present moment. This is just as true for the former Bernie Sanders supporters gravitating toward resurgent left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as it is for the so-called “alt-right.” Is the neckbearded white man in his 20s holding a Pepe sign consorting with neo-Nazis because of actual shared racist convictions, or a rejection of conforming to the standards and opportunities offered to them by a society that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as uncaring and even hostile to them and those like them?

None of this is to absolve any “angry white man,” mass shooter or Trump voter, from their choices. Firstly, whatever the structural parameters of our environment, individuals possess agency, and whatever expectations or obstacles individuals face, how they choose to react to them – whether through literal or figurative violence – is a choice. More importantly, however, the hindrances and problems faced by white men are still minimal in comparison to the huge, deeply institutionalized impediments women and people of color face throughout the U.S. White men have never been a persecuted group in this country, always the prosecutors. If some white men are angry that social forces in the U.S. are dragging them, kicking and screaming, to a more diverse and inclusive world, we should no more sympathize with them than we would commiserate with the Neanderthals driven extinct by evolution. In fact, it behooves us a society to see the ways in which we are actively encouraging mass shooters. This goes beyond the glorification and aestheticizaton of violence or the sensationalism of the mass media, and requires us to ask hard questions about race and gender relations. Why do African-American communities live in virtual police states, where they are routinely targeted and harassed by law enforcement, but white men face few deterrents in engaging in incredibly violent crime? Why might a Muslim man who commits mass murder face being tortured in a cell in Guantanamo, while a white man who commits mass murder will likely be taken alive, enjoy a trial, and then imprisonment? How might we better protect victims of domestic abuse and ensure their abusers do not get easy access to firearms? Finally, how might we raise white men in our society so that they do feel the compulsion to act with retaliatory violence when distressed, to see the benefits of a truly egalitarian social order rather than just the reduction of their privilege?


“People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else.” – James Baldwin


Discussing such questions is a tall order for the U.S., where white supremacy is still deeply ingrained but also fiercely and willfully overlooked. It is far easier and less introspective to silence people like Professor Ciccariello-Maher and to perpetuate the myth of the looney lefty academic than it is to admit that the cracks and contradictions in our society might be generating, through real alienation and exploitation along with false narratives and outdated ideas, the death and destruction we see around us.

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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Hunt, Lynn, David Lansky, and Paul Hanson. “The Failure of the Liberal Republic in France, 1795-1799: The Road to Brumaire.” The Journal of Modern History 51.4 (1979): 734-759.

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