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Brief Comment on the Death of Nelson Mandela

10 Dec

Last week, as news spread that the venerable South African leader had passed, I dashed off the following (favorably received!) bit of curmudgeonliness in response to a facebook reposting of The Onion’s ‘Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed‘:

One point that bears clarifying is that I don’t consider Mandela’s defense of violence to be a flaw per se; I merely intended to highlight how his positions on armed struggle point up the hypocrisy and amnesia afflicting mainstream liberal opinion.

Here I’ve collected excerpts from some of the better–or, at least, more interesting–remembrances and reflections:

Vijay Prashad, ‘Mandela, The Unapologetic Radical

Not long after his arrest in 1964, Mandela became the iconic figure of the South African struggle against apartheid – one that was not only against a ghastly political system, not only against the white ruling clique in South Africa, but also against the governments of the Western world which backed the apartheid regime virtually until the end (Mandela appeared on the U.S. terrorist lists until 2008). It was this iconic figure that the world knew from the 1960s until now. Rarely did people engage with Mandela’s ideas: rarely do we hear him quoted for his principled positions. Particularly after the struggles within South Africa weakened the regime and brought it down, it became impossible not to engage with Mandela – but it was only with Mandela as icon, as Madiba, not Mandela as the political person with deeply held views and commitments.

Everybody now is sad that Madiba is dead. Not a dry eye can be found. But many of these same people opposed freedom in South Africa to the very end. Many of these same people pilloried the struggles around the world in solidarity with Mandela’s ANC. And many of these people now ridicule the kind of views that Mandela held to the very end. When Mandela opposed the Iraq war (“All Bush wants is Iraqi oil”), the Western press lambasted him — the same press that is now aggrieved at his passage. All the obituaries detail what he did in his life, but none go into his political views.


In 2005, he went to the G8 meetings in the U.K. and made it clear that “where poverty exists, there is not true freedom. The world is hungry for action, not words. In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries—including South Africa—remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Where would this freedom come from – by constraining the rights of property to feed untrammeled off of social wealth? Poverty, like apartheid, is man-made, so it can be unmade by man. The rich, he said, must feed the poor.

Jonathan Cook, ‘On the death of Nelson Mandela: a dissenting opinion

Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.

In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.

First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.

Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was required to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.

Patrick Bond, ‘The Mandela Years in Power

In addition to the 1990-94 dealmaking and ideological panel-beating, various other international economic constraints were placed on the New South Africa. A few weeks after liberation in May 1994, when Pretoria joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on disadvantageous terms as a “transitional” not “developing” country, as a result of pressure from Bill Clinton’s White House, the economy’s deindustrialization was guaranteed. In January 1995, privatization began in earnest, with Mbeki facilitating the sale of a few minor parastatals but with much bigger targets looming.

More rapid financial liberalization in the form of the abolition of the Financial Rand exchange controls occurred in March 1995, in the immediate wake of Mexican capital flight that destroyed the peso’s value. Without capital controls, the Reserve Bank lost its main protection against a run on the currency. So when one began 11 months later, the only strategy left was to raise interest rates to a record high, resulting in a long period of double-digit prime interest rates.

The most important post-apartheid economic decision was taken in June 1996, when the top echelon of ANC policymakers imposed what Finance Minister Manuel termed a “non-negotiable” macroeconomic strategy without bothering to properly consult its Alliance partners in the union movement and SACP, much less its own constituents. The World Bank contributed two economists and its econometric model of South Africa for the exercise, known as “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR).

With Mandela’s approval and Mbeki’s formal ideological U-turn – “just call me a Thatcherite,” he pronounced to journalists – GEAR was introduced in the wake of the long 1996 currency crash to promote investor confidence. The document, authored by 17 white men using the World Bank’s economic model, allowed the government to psychologically distance itself from the somewhat more Keynesian RDP, a 150-page document which in 1994 had served as the ANC’s campaign platform, and which the ANC’s civil society allies had insisted be implemented. An audit of the RDP, however, showed that only the RDP’s more neoliberal features were supported by the dominant bloc in government during the late 1990s.


It is here that the core concession made by the ANC during the transition deal was apparent: acquiescing to the desire by white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical “overaccumulation crisis”, in which too much capital piles up in a given territory without sustainable ways to increase consumer purchases of goods, employment of idle labour, new investment of fixed capital, or value production to undergird financial speculation. Put simply, big business wanted out of South Africa and as part of the deal for the transfer of power, Mandela gave the nod to the extreme capital flight which today, leaves South Africa as amongst the countries most adversely affected by a current account deficit.


In sum, the acronym GEAR might have more accurately been revised to Decline, Unemployment and Polarization Economics. A great many South Africans were duped by Mandela’s persuasiveness into thinking that the economy Cecil Rhodes would have found “fit for its time” would somehow also fit the aspirations of the majority. The big question was whether a variety of social protests witnessed after apartheid by civil society – many groups associated with what was formerly known as the Mass Democratic Movement – would shift social policy away from its moorings in apartheid white privilege and instead towards a transformative approach empowering of poor people, women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the ill.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Mandela’s Socialist Failure*

The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterize as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, for instance. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. The ruling ideology mobilizes here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.


At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

It also seems fitting to link Sarah Nutall’s prescient take on Mandela’s mortality (complementary podcast here).

If you can read French, Nutall’s occasional collaborator, Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, recently published a sympathetic meditation on Mandela’s legacy in Le Monde. It’s as worthwhile as anything linked here. In case you can’t, an old friend who recently took a graduate course with Mbembe at Duke passes along the following notes on the professor’s remarks re: Madiba:

«Mandela has been “dying” for years. We’ve been eager to “kill” Mandela so we can memorialize, objectify, turn him into an object of discourse…Mandela is still alive, but there’s not much he can do. He’s already “dead” in the sense that he is being objectified. What is the space occupied by Mandela, somewhere in between subjectivity or objectivity?»

And to close with a perhaps minor artifact which I haven’t seen making the rounds on social media along with the manifold Mandela memorabilia that’s been dusted off for the occasion–footage of the philosopher Jacques Derrida visiting the cell at Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The clip is taken from the 2002 documentary Derrida:

*h/t Doug Henwood


Three more bits of media worth sharing:

1. Noah Feldman, Was Mandela Right to Sell Out Black South Africans?


3. Mandela speaking candidly on Palestine,

If the Jewish leaders have any doubts about our stance, I am prepared to address them and allay their concerns because they are a very important community both in South Africa and of course in the States. And I’m prepared to iron out any differences that might exist, but they must know what our stance is: Arafat is a comrade-in-arms and we treat him as such…For anybody who changes his principles depending on [with] whom he is dealing–that is not a man who can lead a nation.


Thanksgiving Youtube Spread

28 Nov

And finally, some text, just in case you’re one of those zealots who takes ritalin even on holidays. I share with you a heartwarming note from my old MRIHR comrade, Harvard researcher John Spritzler:

A holiday in a class society such as ours has two generally opposite meanings: the official meaning that reflects the world view and values of the ruling class, and the meaning that most ordinary people give it. Yes, Thanksgiving’s official meaning is a celebration of the European upper class’s success in dominating the natives of North America (and also, by the way, dominating the working class of European and African descent.) But for the vast majority of ordinary Americans the meaning of Thanksgiving is that it is a day when the family shares a special meal together even if they are living in separate regions of the country normally and it is a day when they give thanks for having each other in their lives and a good meal to enjoy together.

So, which is the more important of the two meanings? Which is the meaning that we should emphasize? I would say that if one wishes to remove the plutocracy from power, then the latter meaning is the most important one, because it helps people see that there is a positive, decent force in the United States–hundreds of millions of good, decent people who no more want to engage in genocide than you or I–and this force is the basis for hope in building a mass revolutionary movement to remove the genocide-committing plutocracy from power.

But, if one has no serious intention of building such a revolutionary movement, if one wishes merely to complain about the problem rather than solve it, if one wishes mainly to show others that one is not a supporter of genocide (as if anybody thought one was), then I suppose it makes sense to emphasize the former meaning of Thanksgiving.

I choose the latter.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 2: “You never know when a tipping point is going to come.”

16 Nov

The educator’s spirit I alluded to in my first post on Khalidi’s talk was very much on display during that night’s Q&A.

While there were a few pointed and enlightening inquiries, the degree of background knowledge evinced by audience questions was often nil or, in the case of broad questions based on erroneous assumptions, less.

Khalidi handled confused questioners graciously–far better than many academics who’ve put in years speaking on this issue to a painfully ignorant and misinformed public. When an elderly Egyptian man used his turn at the microphone for a rambling five minute sermon exhorting Muslims and Jews to honor their ancient religious-Abrahamic kinship, Khalidi looked tired but, smiling, waited it out.

The Q&A’s high point came when Noor Elashi, daughter of Holy Land 5 prisoner Ghassan Elashi, stepped up to the mic to speak about her father and the plight of Palestinian political prisoners.*

To be immodestly frank, it was a relief just to hear an informed and specific query. 

Since I probably sound like an asshole, I should clarify that I don’t begrudge anyone their right to speak and be heard in a public forum, nor do I mean to slight those less-informed audience members who participated. On the contrary, it’s a heartening fact that so many older (esp. white and Jewish) Americans are taking an interest in long-misunderstood Palestine.

And it was precisely this spectacle of dozens of older and, it would seem, previously disinterested people flocking to hear an Arab-American academic deliver a historico-political critique of American and Israeli policy that ultimately brought me to the microphone queue.

The event was already running long and the last few responses had seen Khalidi’s animated hand gestures begin to lose steam. But, perhaps a bit selfishly, I hopped up to fill the void where the moderator’s “Was there one more question or shall we conclude?” was at first met with silence.

Below is a transcript of my question and Khalidi’s reply (very much worth reading in full), edited slightly for clarity.

William Brown
[i.e. me]: I’m curious as to how much of an impact changing public opinion, and specifically Jewish opinion, can have on US foreign policy without first dislodging 1. AIPAC and 2. Evangelical Christian Zionism. People like Peter Beinart, Norman Finkelstein, and others have documented that large swaths of the US population are changing their attitudes and their views toward Israel. But without overcoming those daunting pro-Israel power blocs, it doesn’t seem like they can do all that much–can they?

Rashid Khalidi: Well, your question brings up a couple things.

One is the fact that it’s clear that the basis for support for the kinds of policies that this Israeli government is engaged in has moved to a very large extent in American political life to the right of the American political spectrum. It’s no longer quite as strongly supported in a bipartisan fashion. It’s really a Tea Party-rightwing Republican-South West bastion.

Those are areas where, as you say, among many other things Christian Zionism [is significant]–[but] it’s also a worldview where force is absolutely necessary because the world is hostile. It’s more than just Christian Zionism. It’s more than just whatever attitudes people have toward Muslims. It’s a whole worldview about how the United States should perceive the world and about the use of military force. And Israel fits right into that. And so that’s why some of these people are as vehemently in favor of occupation, settlement, and Israeli aggression, and so on and so forth, as they are.

I don’t think, in spite of the fact that there has been that shift, I don’t think that it’s unimportant to pay attention to and try to further the kinds of transformations that are taking place among younger people in the Jewish communities, among students generally, among Churches, [and] in some unions. You are beginning actually to see significant movement in all of these groups–most importantly, I think, young people on campuses.

When I was an undergraduate, it was not permissible to even talk about Palestine. The idea of a group on dozens of campuses called Students for Justice in Palestine was unimaginable…You have…Turath, Arab Students and Muslim Students, Students for Justice [in Palestine], Campaign to End the Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace–[three to six] groups on a given campus operating more-or-less in coordination–[this was] inconceivable twenty years ago. Inconceivable! So something has happened with younger people.

One thing is that they’re no longer in thrall to the mainstream media because nobody reads news sources made of dead trees anymore. I know graduate students…who’ve never actually seen a physical New York Times, although they read like fifty other sources online. So the access that they have to information is completely different [than] their elders’. And that has helped enormously. They disbelieve what is in the mainstream media, so…the lies, the Orwellian language–they’re not really affected by it, they don’t see it. And I think that’s helped a lot.

Now a lot of people are being indoctrinated in other ways, so it’s not the case that everybody at every university is exposed to all sides of the issue, but that change is [still] enormously important. The change in a lot of mainstream Protestant churches is very important. The change in a lot of parts of the Jewish community, especially younger parts of the Jewish community–those are really important things.

And I think as time goes on, the task of AIPAC and the myriad organizations with zillions of dollars at their disposal will operate in the public sphere harder and harder. The media is still pretty much occupied territory, Capitol Hill is completely occupied territory. But outside of those very important and crucial bastions, I would not like to be fighting the other side of this issue because they have no moral case whatsoever, there’s not much of a strategic case in my view, and a lot of the myths that were so essential to the early decades of Israel’s establishment and expansion, and the way in which it fixed itself in the American mind, have much more of a hold over people in their 70s and their 60s and their 50s than they do over people in their 20s or 30s.

You know, the connection between the Holocaust and Israel, the idea that Israel was on the verge of extermination in the [June 19]67 war–these are articles of faith among people much older than you. Articles of faith. Not for everybody, there’s lots of smart 70-year-olds and 60-year-olds who figured it out–just look at most of the people in this room! [*laughter*]–but that stuff just doesn’t cut any ice with you[nger people], including people who see themselves as very pro-Israel. They just don’t believe it. They know it’s not true or it doesn’t make any sense. That’s really important. And it’s not been replaced with anything equally powerful.

I mean, I speak to groups who never would have received me decades ago and it’s clear that the other ones don’t have the kinds of absolute vehement certitudes that the older ones had. So that change is very, very important.

Where it leads in terms of politics in the future, I don’t know. I can’t tell you.

I can tell you what I see when I go around. Something I see on campuses is a level of activism that I’ve never, you know–unimaginable, even a decade ago. BDS is changing things, Jewish Voice for Peace is. There are a few groups, four of five of them. The amazing thing is, each of them is following its own path, each is doing something slightly different. But they have enough of a level of coordination that it all works to bring more information.

I mean, look–this was an issue on which there was one side in this country from the dawn of Zionism right up until the 70s or 80s. There was only one side to this story, you couldn’t find a book that told you the other side. It was unavailable, it didn’t exist. Or if it did it was very, very hard to find.

Well today, it’s hard to find…properly vetted, respectable academic publications that don’t at least pay serious lip service to both sides of the issue. And a lot of great scholarship–historical or sociological or anthropological or literary–which tells the whole story and gives you entirely different narratives that weren’t available to anybody 30 or 40 years ago.

So, in academia, anybody who actually studies the issue, whatever your political positions are, you’re going to know things today, you will be exposed to things today, that were impossible to find out about 40 years ago. Whatever your views were, if you were pro-Palestinian or whatever–it didn’t matter. You couldn’t know those things unless you were yourself a first-person researcher out in the field.

Well, any graduate student, any undergraduate, has access…and I’m talking about academic stuff. And then there’s the internet, and they can find out about what’s actually happening today in real time.

So, I think those are very important changes. And I think that stuff that in one sense seems like it’s not moving in some senses moves much faster. You can see that in Egyptian and other transformations that have taken place.

Think of the things that have happened in Egypt since 2010–in less than 3 years. Amazing things have happened very rapidly that were unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. So stuff can happen very quickly. I could give you examples from Lebanese or Palestinian or other cases of people’s views changing very rapidly. I’m not saying that’s definitely going to happen, but it can. And so you never know when a tipping point is going to come, you never know when suddenly opposition is going to become completely indefensible.

*Originally I had intended for this post to include an excerpt from Ms. Elashi’s contribution and Khalidi’s response. Unfortunately, my audio of this portion of the evening is particularly rough. If there’s any serious interest in this, let me know in the comments and I can try to produce an accurate transcript.

Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 1: “If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue.”

10 Nov

The first time you see Rashid Khalidi launch into one of his strident cri de coeurs, punctuated by fierce hand gestures and presided over by an intense, indomitable gaze, it can be a little unnerving.

But Khalidi’s indignation at the widespread misconceptions and propagandistic falsehoods which inform both popular and governmental understandings of Israel-Palestine in the US is tempered by an amiable and generous pedagogic spirit. After hearing the veteran Columbia historian speak last Wednesday at a Brooklyn For Peace-organized talk in downtown Brooklyn, I have little doubt as to the primacy of that educator’s spirit.

As I stumbled in a few minutes after 7pm, I noticed that the audience–predictably large, filling the capacious meeting hall nearly to capacity–was on the whole much older than I’d expected. Mostly folks in the 60s-and-up demographic–what I’d call “retirement age,” if such a thing could still be taken for granted–wearing the frowny, impatient countenances of veteran New Yorkers. The middle-aged crowd marginally outnumbered millennial BDS booster types among the rest.

The lecture centered on the malign American role in the past three decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Khalidi published a groundbreaking book on the subject in March of this year called Brokers of Deceit. You can read a reliable and insightful review of the book by historian Vijay Prashad here; and here is a clip of Khalidi answering questions about the book in, fittingly enough, Jerusalem.

For the last leg of the talk, Khalidi bridged the exposition of his book with some (partially extemporaneous) commentary on John Kerry’s ongoing efforts to jumpstart that interminable farce we call the “Peace Process.” The professor’s take was, predictably, almost wholly negative (“A fool’s errand!”)–and rightly so.

For Khalidi, these latest negotiations represent the continuation of a policy that dates back at least as far as the aftermath of Menachem Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Khalidi characterizes this policy as one of US diplomats rhetorically posturing as unbiased mediators while actively closing ranks with Israel. This game, he informs us, of necessity always ends badly for the Palestinians.

Looking backward, on the basis of what I’ve just talked about, it’s pretty clear that the United States up to this point has in fact made a settlement much less likely. I’m very wary of making predictions…but I would offer that it is impossible to build anything lasting on the kind of rotten foundation that the United States has already established through its orchestration of this process.

We have a situation here where parties are negotiating on the basis of gaping inequality. One is occupier, one is occupied. The ostensible mediator overtly favors the stronger party. You have to know that it’s a big fat American thumb pushing the scale down even further on the side of the overwhelmingly dominant party.

The Olso accords and all the agreements thereafter, which form the basis of this process, are entirely based on Israeli blueprints–Begin’s blueprints for expansive Israeli settlements, actually–that were intended to prevent an equitable two-state settlement.[1]

I think Begin has basically succeeded. I don’t think a Palestinian state is very likely. Whatever transpires with…Secretary Kerry…these conditions seem to guarantee the outcome will not be a just and lasting peace in which the Palestinian people end their century-long odyssey and where both peoples end up living in peace and justice and security, whether it’s in one-state or two-state or some kind of federal arrangement …

The process that the Secretary of State is engaged in cannot produce such an outcome. It can only extend into the future the entirely unsatisfactory status quo.

As to whether we might hope to see any positive change in this state of affairs (of which “unsatisfactory” is a pretty understated assessment), Khalidi would by night’s end address several key sticking points. Regarding the role of the Arab states, he made the following diagnosis:

This [US] policy can only continue as long as undemocratic governments continue to dominate the Arab world. Governments like that of Saudi Arabia. These governments have basically capitulated on this issue. They talk a good game where Palestine is concerned, but in no case have they been willing to put the Palestine issue at the top of their agenda with Washington. In no case have they been willing to jeopardize their relationship with Washington over this issue. And the main reason that this is the case is that none of these are democratic governments. They don’t respond to the wishes of their people. People in the Arab world are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians and completely baffled as to why the United States should follow the policies it does.

If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue. It poisons everything else.

In a follow-up post I’ll include a transcript of Khalidi’s remarks on the transformative potential of changing popular opinion vis-à-vis Palestine. The sound on my recording is a little fuzzy here and there, so it might be a few days before I’ll have time for the painstaking work of jamming an earbud into my osseous labyrinth while I relisten to the same 4 second chunks of audio ad nauseam.

[1] Here’s the same analysis explained more carefully in Brokers of Deceit:

If one examines them carefully, there can be no question about it: the Camp David agreements, the Madrid framework, and the Oslo Accords on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority and the permanent occupation and settlement regime that resulted from this structure of commitments on the other, all of these things, summed up in the term “the peace process,” are in the end one single construct. This construct is and was always designed by its Israeli architects (and their American subcontractors) to be an impermeable barrier against true Palestinian emancipation, rather than a route in that direction. Thus, this construct does not, cannot, and is expressly meant not to, address the roots of the conflict, which lie in the unending subjugation of the Palestinians, and their refusal to accept their lot. We should not be surprised: all of these elements are inextricably bound to a scheme originally devised by Menachem Begin to avoid such emancipation, and to ensure permanent Israeli control of, and settlement in, the occupied territories, the core of what Begin called “Eretz Israel.” Israel’s pitiless occupation regime not only guarantees more oppression and Palestinian resistance to this oppression. It also guarantees continued, bitter resentment of the United States for helping to devise, uphold, and defend this regime, a resentment felt particularly acutely in the Arab and Islamic worlds, in much of Europe, and beyond, where these realities are concealed from almost no one. (135)

A Raspberry to My Anarchist Friends on the Cultural Left…

5 Nov

…whose sanctimonious claim to sole arbiter status over discursive racism is worth humbling, and whose uncritically inherited antipathy to Marxism (not to mention European Social Democracy) is worth picking at.

From Foucault’s 1975-76 lectures at the Collège de France, published as Society Must Be Defended:

The most racist forms of socialism were, therefore, Blanquism of course, and then the Commune, and then anarchism—much more so than social democracy, much more so than the Second International, and much more so than Marxism itself. Socialist racism was liquidated in Europe only at the end of the nineteenth century, and only by the domination of social democracy (and, it has to be said, by the reformism that was bound up with it)…and by a number of processes such as the Dreyfus affair in France…Until the Dreyfus affair, all socialists, or at least the vast majority of socialists, were basically racists.” (262-263)

The US, Israel, and Iran’s Nuclear Program

5 Aug

I recommend that anyone following the absurd, violent rhetoric issuing from the Senate toward Iran read my article, ‘The US, Israel, and Iran’s Nuclear Program’. Originally penned in the wake of the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2012, it remains, for better or worse, highly relevant.

Remarks on Samantha Power

11 Jun
[Dashed off this little polemical rant Saturday morning after a long night of bacchanalia at the Verso office in Dumbo, Brooklyn and set it aside to edit later.  As I’ve since been overtaken by other projects, it’s going up here rough and raw.]

That infamous interview with a Scottish journalist–a great moment!–and her subsequent apology is our new UN ambassador in a nutshell.

Samantha Power is, in many respects, an impressive human being.  There is no disputing that she has done a great deal of good, serious work both outside government as a journalist and scholar as well as within it as an advocate for a more human rights-oriented US foreign policy.  Her achievements clearly took some serious fortitude to pull off and I don’t doubt that what she does is generally motivated by noble instincts.

But when she ruffles the wrong feathers and has to choose between principle and political opportunism, she seems to take the coward’s way out every time.

Witness the craven histrionics she’s been staging to walk back her criticisms of Israel. Or the fact that her Pulitzer Prize-winning book–apparently a solid work of scholarship, from which I learned a great deal–has at its core a jingoistic and pretty unconvincing argument for greater US intervention in foreign conflicts which conspicuously ignores the long history of direct US participation in some of the worst crimes of the 20th century.

How can you argue for the moral authority of US militarism in Libya or Sudan without addressing the millions butchered by the US military in Southeast Asia? Or the US-backed genocide in Guatemala? Or the US-backed slaughter in East Timor, which, if I recall correctly, Power falsely claims was simply ignored by the Ford administration (it is no longer disputed among academic historians that Henry Kissinger directly greenlit the mass-exsanguination of East Timor by the Suharto regime). The ease with which Clinton was able to end the Indonesian occupation when it became politically expedient for him to do so both supports her contention that the US has unrealized potential to influence the world for the better and demonstrates that she’s at heart more interested in building her cv than speaking moral truth to power.

Jeremy Scahill taking Power to task for self-serving misguided positions on US foreign policy

Her record of very public, very oleaginous praise for some of the most grotesque blowhards in American political discourse is also deeply regrettable, and that’s putting it lightly.

I have a pretty hard time taking seriously anyone who thinks fucking Leon Wieseltier is “the wisest man in Washington and the most stirring moralist around.” All I know is if our new UN ambassador thinks cheerleading for the Iraq war, defending sundry Israeli warcrimes, and reflexively smearing your critics on these issues by calling them “anti-Semites,” “disgusting self-hating Jew[s],” and Islamofascist fellow travelers is “moral” and “wise” then god help us. Gore Vidal had it right about Wieseltier when he suggested the nicest thing you can say about that guy is that “he has very important hair.”

Her warm friendship with HLS embarrassment and serial liar Alan Dershowitz won her an endorsement as a “friend of Israel”–which is a little like getting RSS/VHP legal counsel to call you a “friend of India”.

This same Samantha Power gave a memorably lazy and dismissive review to Noam Chomsky. We all know ascending the ranks of the establishment requires a disavowal of its righteous critics–paradigmatically, Power’s current boss threw Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi under the bus and now shares lavish meals with the most execrable people on Earth, from Lloyd Blankfein to the Saudi royalty–but that review reads like it was written from a template for halfhearted mainstream Chomsky write-ups. I guess she was too busy polishing apples for the revanchist gasbags on the New Republic masthead to give it much attention.

In any case, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that, had she given Noam his due, she’d probably have to answer for it now, but it doesn’t appear she will face political repercussions for a longstanding association with disgraced racist and Islamophobe Marty Peretz.

I’ll leave you with a passage from the late Edward Said, a man possessed of an acute understanding of and contempt for this kind of moral evasion in the service of personal ambition. It’s interesting to note that the issue Power has of late been apologizing for addressing honestly some years ago at Berkeley is the same one Said had in mind when he said,

“Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits. Personally I have encountered them in one of the toughest of all contemporary issues, Palestine, where fear of speaking out about one of the greatest injustices in modern history has hobbled, blinkered, muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it. For despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self-determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual.”