Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is America Really Moving Left?

As anyone who regularly reads my blog will know, I've on more than one occasion found an article that I thought was wrong enough that it merited a rebuttal (in fact, my last blog post was devoted to one such article). While I'm used to finding articles like that from people I don't like, that doesn't mean it can't happen with people I do generally like and respect. Case in point: I generally appreciate the journalist Peter Beinart's commentary and think he offers a useful critique of the actions of Israel, for instance. I don't read his articles too regularly, but I've generally been in agreement, often strong agreement, with the ones I do read. That was why I found myself a bit dismayed with some of the arguments in his recent article, "Why America is Moving Left." I won't be responding to the article bit by bit as I often do, because there's plenty here I have no issue with, and it's a fairly long article. Instead, I'll focus on the major points that I disagree with.

Interestingly, Beinart says that he started with the opposite thesis: that a conservative reaction in America was near. It would be interesting to read the article he would have written, but he had his mind changed when looking at the evidence. And that isn't without some degree of reason. I will first grant Beinart an important and major point: the American public has definitely shifted left in certain ways over the past decades. Americans are more pro-gay rights, more supportive of legal marijuana, more in favor of wealth redistribution, and more dissatisfied with the current anti-poverty policies. And, as Beinart points out, the youngest voters are clearly left of what has historically been mainstream, as can be seen from, for instance, the fact that a poll has shown them having a more positive view of socialism than capitalism. Beinart makes a good case for why their liberalness will not vanish with age, as some might assume it would. Beinart does himself another favor by making it clear that he is not arguing that America is shifting leftward on foreign policy (which would be a truly incredible claim), but rather only on domestic policy.

The issue is more with Beinart's view that this leftward shift has been truly reflected in public policy. First of all, he tries to paint Obama's presidency as being more liberal than it is, in my view. He writes:
President Obama has intervened more extensively in the economy than any other president in close to half a century. In his first year, he pushed through the largest economic stimulus in American history—larger in inflation-adjusted terms than Franklin Roosevelt’s famed Works Progress Administration. In his second year, he muscled universal health care through Congress, something progressives had been dreaming about since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose. That same year, he signed a law re-regulating Wall Street. He’s also spent roughly $20 billion bailing out the auto industry, increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, toughened emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the production of carbon dioxide, expanded the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate the sale of tobacco products, doubled the amount of fruits and vegetables required in school lunches, designated 2 million acres as wilderness, and protected more than 1,000 miles of rivers.
Firstly, intervening in the economy doesn't necessarily make you a good liberal--there's plenty of examples of right-wing, pro-corporate intervention in the economy. But let's examine his examples. The stimulus bill, regardless of its size relative to FDR's program, was quite a bit smaller than even liberals like Paul Krugman called for. Even Republican Jon Huntsman admitted it had probably been too small. It was also a little less, in terms of percentage of GDP, than the budget originally allocated to the WPA (not to mention Roosevelt's even bigger follow-up in 1935--still during his first term) and a lot smaller relative to the federal budget.

Second, Obama's healthcare law. While the narrative has often been spun that Obama managed to achieve what the liberals of the past hadn't, that's not really accurate. Richard Nixon proposed a plan to the left of Obama's, and Ted Kennedy refused to support because he thought it was still too conservative. Obama settled for something the other liberals refused to settle for; it was a step in the right direction, but not some unheard of achievement, seeing as it bears a lot of similarity to the Heritage Foundation's plan from the 1990s.

As for Dodd-Frank, the law "re-regulating" Wall Street, the law is pretty toothless, and the biggest banks are, well, bigger than ever. Not exactly a smashing success on that front (which Obama's actions afterwards haven't done much to help). As for the auto bailout, Obama actually missed a huge opportunity in terms of reorganizing the industry. The auto bailouts also started under Bush, who wasn't exactly known for his progressivism. As for Obama's environmental legacy, he's currently pushing a trade pact which has been very strongly opposed by numerous environmental groups, who see it as a major step back.

Beinart claims that Obama is the Democrats' Reagan toward the end of his article. I wish I could I see some merit in that claim, given that I like Beinart, but I really can't. Reagan's presidency marked a major shift--serious deregulation, slashing welfare programs, a top tax rate that plummeted from 70 to 28 percent, a big drop in union membership and a spike in illegal union firings, to name a few changes that happened. Under Obama, we've seen cuts to Food Stamps (in a bill he praised for being a bipartisan accomplishment), proposed cuts to social security, and a proposed corporate tax cut. While the top tax rate is higher, that's because the Bush tax cut for highest earners expired--after Obama agreed to extend it for two years. If Obama is comparable to Reagan, it's not because of the dramatic shift he's ushered in.

Beinart also tries to portray the Democratic establishment as having warmed up to the left, due to their endorsement of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement. But, given the energy behind movements like these, it's a lot more likely the Democrats saw an opportunity to co-opt the movements rather than acting out of sincere support. Beinart also claims that Bernie Sanders has had little "ideological resistance." While the Democrats have perhaps refrained from attacking his ideas in the way they would have in the past (given that they don't want to alienate young voters who like those ideas), they've also tried to sabotage Sanders's candidacy in pretty much every way you can think of. Not exactly the sign of a serious change of heart.

Beinart tries to portray Hillary Clinton as being demonstrative of this wave of liberalism, but his arguments are, again, unconvincing. He states:
At the first Democratic debate, she noted that, unlike him, she favors “rein[ing] in the excesses of capitalism” rather than abandoning it altogether. But the only specific policy difference she highlighted was gun control, on which she attacked him from the left.
While Clinton may not have gone out of her way to highlight her other differences with Sanders, she also made it clear she doesn't support the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, supports the PATRIOT Act, and was unwilling to lend her support to legalizing marijuana. Those are some pretty important differences.

Beinart also writes that "[s]he has called for tougher regulation of the financial industry, mused about raising Social Security taxes on the wealthy (something she opposed in 2008), and criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade agreement she once gushed about)." Clinton's calls for tougher regulation are, at this point, just words, as are her musings about raising Social Security taxes on the wealthy. Her criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was both weak and opportunistic, and given that she once voted for a bill in Congress that she'd helped defeat as First Lady, it's not hard to imagine her re-reevaluating her positions. While Beinart seems to believe she would depart from the legacies of Bill Clinton and Obama, she praised them as continuing the tradition of the New Deal when she began her campaign. She clearly wants to sound liberal--not surprising, given the real shift to the left on economic issues among the American public--but what proof do we have that that will translate into actual action? How many real, major policies has she even proposed?

The most bizarre, though, is Beinart's attempt to argue that we're about to see the Republicans shift to the left.
Just as Clinton would govern to Obama’s left, it’s likely that any Republican capable of winning the presidency in 2016 would govern to the left of George W. Bush...Whit Ayres, a political consultant for the Rubio campaign, calculates that even if the 2016 Republican nominee wins 60 percent of the white vote (more than any GOP nominee in the past four decades except Reagan, in 1984, has won), he or she will still need almost 30 percent of the minority vote. Mitt Romney got 17 percent.
This need to win the votes of Millennials and minorities, who lean left not just on cultural issues but on economic ones, will shape how any conceivable Republican president campaigns in the general election, and governs once in office. It could tempt a President Rubio to push for immigration reform that, while beginning with toughened enforcement, lays out a path to legalization, and eventually citizenship—something he still supports, despite the fury of his party’s base. (So does Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.)
Beinart seems to forget that Bush was actually not an extremist (relatively speaking) on illegal immigration. Neither was John McCain, the 2008 GOP candidate, for that matter (though, naturally, he had some anti-illegal immigration pandering in his campaign). And in any case, Marco Rubio is in third place in nationwide polling, at about eleven percent, well behind Ted Cruz and with a fraction of the support of Donald Trump, who's running on an extreme anti-immigration platform. This is the sign of a party that's about to moderate itself?

Continuing on with the idea of Rubio as president, Beinart writes:
Although liberals praised his [tax] plan for “upend[ing] the last half century of conservative thinking on taxes,” as The New Republic put it, Rubio included new cuts on taxes of capital gains, dividends, interest, and inherited estates, which overwhelmingly benefit the rich. But despite this, it’s likely that were he elected, Rubio wouldn’t push through as large, or as regressive, a tax cut as Bush did in 2001 and 2003. 
Of course not; we didn't have a national debt in 2001 or 2003 anywhere near the size it is now. The Bush tax cuts were always supposed to be temporary. Is it really some sign of moving leftward that maybe Rubio (who is, again, not even close to being the frontrunner for the GOP nomination at the moment) wouldn't enact such a massive and costly tax cut when we've all been hearing about how huge the national debt is for years?

Again, Beinart has some points in this article; there are definitely ways in which the American public has shifted to the left. But that has yet to manifest itself very much in the institutions of America. Obama has simply not represented the shift toward liberalism that Beinart seems to believe. The reality is, we have one party in which the current frontrunner is essentially a fascist, and another where the frontrunner is an establishment politician who's shown little integrity, and has backed the disastrous policies that have gotten the country to where it is today. I hope that Beinart is right that we'll see a shift to the left in terms of actual policies in America; but I'm still waiting for it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Debunking Neo-McCarthyite Propaganda

A Response to Jamie Palmer's Article on Glenn Greenwald

Consistent readers of my blog (if I have any) may have gathered that I have a certain admiration for Glenn Greenwald. While I appreciate his well-known role in publishing stories based on the documents Edward Snowden leaked to him, I had already discovered him before that and found his work impressive. More recently, I've appreciated his polemics against the New Atheist movement. Both of us seem to have gotten much out of Noam Chomsky's ideas, so the fact that I find myself so often in agreement with him is hardly surprising; however, my agreement aside, I think he's both a skilled journalist and a brave one for what he's been willing to do.

Because of the enemies he's made, I've gotten used to seeing hit pieces against Greenwald, as I'm sure he himself also has. It would not be worth my time to write rebuttals to all of them, and he is, of course, perfectly capable of defending himself. On a personal level, in fact, I'm a little reluctant to take on the task of writing a response to criticisms of someone who is very much alive and capable of taking care of themselves. It feels a little too sycophantic. But there are, of course, hit pieces that contain ideas so awful and dangerous that for that reason they deserve a rebuttal, and I've run across one. This article is by a writer named Jamie Palmer, and is entitled "Glenn Greenwald: Fascism's Fellow Traveler," which should set off anyone's bullshit dials right away, if they know Greenwald's history of civil libertarianism and defense of individual rights. But let's not linger on the title.

Predictably, it's been promoted by the same old clowns in the "Anti-PC" circus: Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, Cathy Young, et al. So let's look at the material these brave defenders of truth and freedom have given their stamp of approval to.

We begin:
“When Glenn Greenwald castigates the dead Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for racism,” the writer Sam Harris observed recently, “he’s not only proving that he’s a moral imbecile; he’s participating in a global war of ideas over free speech – and he’s on the wrong side of it.”
Ah, yes, Harris, whose ridiculousness I've already addressed in detail. Here we have him promoting the totally idiotic idea that somehow, in the face of an uncritical deification of the slain journalists of Charlie Hebdo, criticizing their material somehow makes you anti-free speech. This point has been addressed extensively, so I'll be brief: as long as you support the right of all people to speak and be heard, you are not against free speech. We can debate whether the CH cartoons are offensive or racist, but saying they are does not make you anti-free speech, as Harris implies. Otherwise, criticizing any view ever is anti-free speech, which is patently absurd. The fact that Charlie's journalists were killed does not, and should not, grant their cartoons and writing freedom from criticism.

Palmer then tells us how writer Deborah Eisenberg argued that Greenwald was more deserving of the PEN Freedom of Expression Award for Courage than Charlie Hebdo, and how she had argued that Greenwald's "courage has been fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity," given his role in revealing the NSA programs. Palmer also notes Greenwald's history as an outspoken supporter of free speech and opponent of censorship, quoting from his writing:
The history of human knowledge is nothing more than the realization that yesterday’s pieties are actually shameful errors. It is constantly the case that human beings of the prior generation enshrined a belief as objectively, unchallengably [sic] true which the current generation came to see as wildly irrational or worse. All of the most cherished human dogmas – deemed so true and undeniable that dissent should be barred by the force of law – have been subsequently debunked, or at least discredited. How do you get yourself to believe that you’re exempt from this evolutionary process, that you reside so far above it that your ideas are entitled to be shielded from contradiction upon pain of imprisonment? The amount of self-regard required for that is staggering to me.
From this, Palmer concludes that "it would seem logical to suppose that Greenwald’s solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo could be taken for granted. The magazine has, after all, dedicated itself to mocking religious and political pieties, and its attackers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were surely guilty of the self-regard for which Greenwald expresses such vehement contempt."

This is, of course, a total whitewash of what Charlie Hebdo has actually done, which has involved far more vulgarity and insensitivity than Palmer lets on, as I've previously examined. I will again direct my readers to a letter written by Olivier Cyran, a former Charlie Hebdo journalist, castigating the staff there for their depiction of Muslims.
Instead, as Sam Harris noted, the blood had scarcely dried on the walls of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices before Greenwald published a furious article at the Intercept, reviling the magazine for its alleged racism and pouring scorn on its defenders. That his misreading of Charlie Hebdo demonstrated a profound ignorance of their material and a dismal inability to parse satire ought to have been beside the point. After all, as Greenwald was at pains to remind his readers, he has spent much of his life defending the freedom of people to express views he abhors.
The first part of this is not really accurate, as one will quickly see by reading the article Greenwald wrote. The article was in response to the calls for Charlie's cartoons to be shared and republished "in solidarity" with the journalists who were killed, and the insinuation that refusal to do so indicates a lack of support for free speech. To quote from the article:
But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons.
While, of course, criticizing Charlie Hebdo is inevitable in this case, that is only because of the undeserved and quasi-religious embrace of its journalists as martyrs and the celebration of the magazine as some kind of beacon for the highest forms of free expression. As for the idea that Greenwald was "misreading" Charlie Hebdo, I guess we also have to conclude that so was Cyran, despite the fact that he used to work at the magazine.
But while he was careful to include a perfunctory, throat-clearing defence of Charlie Hebdo’s narrow right to ridicule Islam, Greenwald’s more pressing concern was the denigration of people murdered for publishing cartoons offensive to their assassins. More telling still was the corresponding absence of any criticism of Al Qaeda’s pitiless death squad. Beliefs held to be unchallengeable by Islamic fundamentalists (but wildly irrational by the rest of us) were, it seems, to be exempted from the evolutionary process after all. This is all because Greenwald’s commitment to free speech is subject to a couple of slippery caveats, which make it rather more porous than he likes to pretend.
In this one paragraph, we get bombarded with a substantial amount of idiocy. First, the idea that "Greenwald’s more pressing concern was the denigration of people murdered for publishing cartoons offensive to their assassins." Again, criticism wouldn't have been necessary except for the numerous people elevating the victims to the level of secular saints. Whether or not they have just died, it is important to keep someone from earning a level of worship they plainly don't deserve. And, of course, the cartoons were offensive to far more people than just the assassins, as has been established.

Next, the comment that "More telling still was the corresponding absence of any criticism of Al Qaeda’s pitiless death squad." It was practically universally agreed that the killings were heinously wrong, so such a criticism would have been pointless and unnecessary, especially given that the article was addressing the response to the attacks, not the attacks themselves. This would be obvious to any intelligent person with a shred of intellectual honesty.

Instead, Palmer concludes that "Beliefs held to be unchallengeable by Islamic fundamentalists (but wildly irrational by the rest of us) were, it seems, to be exempted from the evolutionary process after all." This is entirely wrong, and obviously so. Greenwald did not defend the attack, in fact labeling it "horrific" in the article Palmer links to. Nor would he defend censorship of the magazine, as Palmer later acknowledges. His criticism of Charlie Hebdo, in fact, has nothing to do with their attacks on the beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists, but rather focuses on their insensitivity and deliberate offensiveness toward Muslims as a group.

After his statement that "Greenwald’s commitment to free speech is subject to a couple of slippery caveats, which make it rather more porous than he likes to pretend," Palmer goes on to give us the first of these supposed caveats.
He had hinted at Caveat One with a couple of lawyerly qualifications buried in the paean to counter-orthodoxy quoted above. Dissent, he had argued, should not be barred “by the force of law” nor ideas shielded “on pain of imprisonment.” In other words, as far as Greenwald is concerned, the only meaningful kind of censorship – and the only kind worth opposing – is that mandated by the state, thereby excluding the kind imposed by terror and carried out by non-state actors like the Kouachis.
Palmer seems to seriously think that Greenwald has no problem with murdering people based on what they write, draw, or say, which is flabbergasting in its absurdity. Again, we need only refer to the article Palmer linked to, where Greenwald labels the Charlie Hebdo attacks "horrific." Is that not strong enough condemnation for Palmer? While Greenwald certainly focuses more on state censorship, that is, of course, because when random individuals commit acts of violence against people who say things they don't like, that is consistently almost universally condemned, at least in the West. On the other hand, state censorship enjoys much more support.
In  2013, Greenwald had argued that the whole idea of hate speech is simply a culturally- and historically-specific instrument for preserving the status quo. By 2015 – apparently unaware that he sounded exactly like those he had previously taken such pleasure in attacking – he was complaining that “some of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were not just offensive but bigoted.”
Obviously, opposing the banning of "hate speech" does not mean you must criticize literally nothing for being bigoted or offensive. If Palmer disagrees with Greenwald's assessment of Charlie Hebdo, fine, but that has nothing to do with free speech, and it is extreme dishonesty to claim otherwise.

After noting correctly that Greenwald would have defended Charlie Hebdo from prosecution by the French government, Palmer asks:
Why then does Greenwald’s stomach also not churn for the victims of state censorship in, say, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, or the Palestinian territories? Journalists in such states enjoy none of the rights and protections afforded by liberal democracies, and yet, on the subject of state repression in unfree societies, Greenwald is conspicuously silent.
I'll allow Greenwald to respond to the charge of being "conspicuously silent" on these issues, which can be understood by reading a paragraph from his satirical attack on Sam Charles Hamad for failing to mention a slew of human rights abuses in countries across the world:
Or could it be that — as a single individual with finite time and energy — he’s capable of focusing only on a relatively small handful of injustices at once, and chooses the ones where he thinks he can have the greatest impact, thus necessarily paying little to no attention to other grave injustices where he thinks he can have little or no effect? Or might it be that he perceives that some injustices receive a great deal of attention in the West (e.g., the Evils of Russia, China and Iran) but that other injustices receive far less attention (those perpetrated by the West and its allies) and thus chooses — as a corrective of sorts — to devote himself to trying to shine much-needed light on the ones that are typically overlooked or ignored entirely?
This tiresome argument that being selective in which human rights abuses you focus on indicates approval or apathy toward the others you fail to focus on continues to be used as a talking point long after it has been debunked. One has to judge what they will add to the conversation: contributing to the many, many condemnations of "Russia, Venezuela, Iran, or the Palestinian territories" is not an especially useful activity, as 1. the condemnations abound, and 2. there's relatively little we can do about what's going on in those countries. Criticizing western liberal democracies--where the population does at least have some impact on government policy, and where someone like Greenwald has the highest chance of being read--is, given the taboos on doing so and the relative lack of condemnations of the governments of such places, much more useful.

Predictably, Palmer has other, far stupider explanations for this mundane phenomenon.
This brings us to Caveat Two, which is that Greenwald’s governing principle is not the absolute defence of free expression, but an absolute opposition to democratic governments, which he presumes to be motivated by authoritarianism, mendacity, and self-serving hypocrisy in every instance. For Greenwald, Western power and Zionism are the only enemies worthy of his critical attention; forces of unparalleled cynicism and cruelty against which all resistance, no matter how vicious and sadistic, must be indulgently understood.
While Western power and Zionism are not necessarily "the only enemies worthy of his critical attention" (nor are they the only targets of his criticism), we have already established why they should be among the primary targets. There is, of course, no evidence that Greenwald thinks we must be indulgent to all those who oppose these powers, and Palmer tellingly cites no examples.
By the same token, Greenwald may be wholly ignorant of Mali’s history and politics, but once the French government announced military intervention there to halt jihadist violence, his position on the matter was as entirely predictable as it was entirely uninformed.
I have never found any reason to suspect that Greenwald is remotely interested in understanding the complex considerations that inform Western foreign policy decisions. Nor have I found any reason to suspect that he is interested in investigating or understanding Islamist ideology. He finds it more convenient to prejudge the former as invariably malevolent, and the latter as invariably reactive.
Palmer refrains from even explaining why Greenwald's position on France's intervention in Mali was predictable or uninformed, instead linking to another piece by another writer attacking Greenwald. Greenwald's piece seems to indicate otherwise:
First, as the New York Times' background account from this morning makes clear, much of the instability in Mali is the direct result of Nato's intervention in Libya. Specifically, "heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya" and "the big weaponry coming out of Libya and the different, more Islamic fighters who came back" played the precipitating role in the collapse of the US-supported central government.
Second, the overthrow of the Malian government was enabled by US-trained-and-armed soldiers who defected. From the NYT: "commanders of this nation's elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials." And then: "an American-trained officer overthrew Mali's elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists."
This sounds a little different than someone who is "wholly ignorant of Mali's history and politics," as Palmer alleges. As for Palmer's comment that "I have never found any reason to suspect that Greenwald is remotely interested in understanding the complex considerations that inform Western foreign policy decisions. Nor have I found any reason to suspect that he is interested in investigating or understanding Islamist ideology," we should not be surprised that he has not found Greenwald to be "remotely interested" in understanding such issues, as he is apparently capable of totally ignoring the actual evidence of Greenwald's consideration and investigation of said issues, even in pieces which he has clearly read. That's quite a talent.

We move onto even more absurd allegations at this point:
Greenwald is never less than proud to acknowledge the considerable time he has spent as a litigator and writer defending the right of neo-Nazis to air their views. For a truly principled free speech activist, there would be no shame in that. But his condemnation of their beliefs often feels somewhat pro forma, and certainly pales next to the contempt he expresses for their enemies.
Again, given the widespread condemnation of neo-Nazism, we can understand why Greenwald would focus more on criticizing the governments and organizations that attempt to censor neo-Nazis. It is a little hard to believe that he would feel much fondness for a group known for their hostility to Muslims, given his strong condemnation of Islamophobia.
In 1999, for instance, a member of Matthew F. Hale’s white supremacist World Church of the Creator went on an interstate shooting spree that left two people dead and nine injured. A New York-based NGO called The Centre for Constitutional Rights filed suit against Hale and his Church on behalf of one of the victims, alleging them to be partly culpable. Explaining his decision to represent Hale, Greenwald objected that “all [the complainants] can say Matt Hale did is express the view that Jews and blacks are inferior. There’s just no question that expressing those views is a core First Amendment activity.” Well, okay. But, gratuitously, he then added: “I find that the people behind these lawsuits are truly so odious and repugnant, that creates its own motivation for me.” Hale, incidentally, was later convicted of attempting to solicit the murder of a district court judge and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Is it wrong to see a desire to censor as "odious and repugnant," in Palmer's view? And the fact that Hale was later convicted on a different matter is, of course, irrelevant and not worth mentioning, since whether he was a good person was not what was at stake, but rather whether his speech should merit punishment.
I sometimes get the feeling that Greenwald – an openly gay Jew – harbours a not-altogether grudging respect for unapologetic fascists. He sympathises with their marginalisation just as he would with any underdog; but he also seems to find their ideological certainty appealing, even if every dot and comma is not exactly to his taste. And he has sympathy to spare for any professions of hatred for Israel, no matter how inflammatory or defamatory those professions may be.
What a treat it is to know the feelings that Palmer sometimes gets--truly, that's the stuff of serious journalism. The idea that Greenwald's differences between fascists would come down to "dots and commas" is so laughable that it hardly deserves rebuttal, given that Greenwald is staunchly opposed to government censorship and fascists tend to support it, to name one of many differences in their ideologies.
The undisguised pleasure Greenwald takes in the frisson of antisemitic provocation is what’s most striking about his Charlie Hebdo article. “To comport with this new principle for how one shows solidarity with free speech rights and a vibrant free press,” he jeered childishly, “we’re publishing some blasphemous and otherwise offensive cartoons about religion and their adherents…” (Notice, by the way, the casual diffusion of responsibility in his use of the first person plural here.)

What followed was a gruesome selection of cartoons, not one of which could reasonably be described as blasphemous or anti-clerical, and every one of which relied upon classical antisemitic conspiracist tropes about malevolent Jewish power and influence.
Interesting that Palmer doesn't see it as blasphemous to show Moses as giving an 11th commandment, which is for the Jews to control the media. I feel he might meet some disagreement in this area. And, of course, the point of the cartoons was that they were offensive and would widely be regarded as such, thus serving as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that supporting free speech should mean republishing offensive cartoons.
This was in turn followed by a comparably awful selection of cartoons by the notorious Arab-Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff, for whom Greenwald has expressed his unequivocal admiration. Latuff’s depictions of the Zionist octopus and of blood-drenched, genocidal Jews are frequently indistinguishable from those circulated in pre-war Europe, so it was no surprise to discover a lengthy comment below Greenwald’s article from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, which he concluded with this:
Thank You Mr. Greenwald for being courageous enough to dare to expose hypocrisy and racism wherever it is found even among the chosen few [who] have enormous power.
Palmer links to a an article using the worthless definition of antisemitism created by the State Department, which concludes that any comparisons of Israel's actions to Nazi Germany's constitute antisemitism, and indicts Latuff as an antisemite on this charge, as well as the fact that, as Palmer mentions, he has portrayed a "Zionist octopus," despite the fact that the octopus is a common visual metaphor. The fact that David Duke praised Greenwald is, of course, totally irrelevant to any intelligent conversation, unless one supposes that we should frown on the music of the Beatles because Charles Manson enjoyed it, too.
When Greenwald complained in his article that Charlie Hebdo had fired a cartoonist for antisemitism, or when he protested on twitter about the arrest of the Holocaust denier Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, there was little evidence he felt their racism merited much in the way of condemnation. On the contrary, what really bothered him seemed to be the suspicion that Jews were getting special protection they did not deserve.
In fact, the journalist fired from Charlie Hebdo had sarcastically written that then-President Sarkozy's son, who was engaged to a Jewish heiress and who was, unfounded rumors would have it, converting to Judaism, would "go a long way in life," which was interpreted by some as antisemitic (given the implication that he was converting to Judaism to be successful). One can see why firing someone for a single line like this is objectionable when your magazine is supposedly dedicated to irreverence and satire. As for the second example cited, we've already established why Greenwald wouldn't spend time criticizing a Holocaust denier, given that Holocaust denial is widely repudiated. Palmer's conclusion that "what really bothered him seemed to be the suspicion that Jews were getting special protection they did not deserve" is just as worthless and unfounded as the rest of his allegations.

Next we have a paragraph that illustrates the pure McCarthyism of the "anti-PC" movement:
Given Glenn Greenwald’s prodigious contempt for the West, his impulsive sympathy for its enemies, and his generous indulgence of Jew hatred, his emergence as one of America’s most vehement Islamist fellow travellers was a forseeable development. And it is in their name that he has offered some of his most passionate arguments for free expression.
There is nothing worth responding to here, since it contains no more substance than schoolyard name-calling, but it is an informative example.
To take one example: when Tarek Mehanna, an Al Qaeda affiliate, was convicted in 2012 of translating jihadist material and conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country (that of American soldiers in Iraq), Greenwald responded by writing:
I believe history will be quite clear about who the actual criminals are in this case: not Mehanna, but rather the architects of the policies he felt compelled to battle and the entities that have conspired to consign him to a cage for two decades.
I rather doubt that, although time will tell, I suppose. But Greenwald then went even further and described the statement Mehanna delivered at his sentencing hearing (a masterwork of bad faith which he reproduced in full) as “incredibly eloquent [and] thoughtful.” It was, he enthused, “something quite amazing.”
I, too, doubt history will judge the "architects of the policies" as the real criminals, but they certainly deserve to be judged as such, and have been already by prominent figures. While I recognize it may seem odd that Greenwald would give the praise he did to Mehanna's statement (it did to me at first), before concluding anything I would urge everyone to read the statement itself, as I did. To give a sample (from Greenwald's article):
When I was six, I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed. This resonated with me so much that throughout the rest of my childhood, I gravitated towards any book that reflected that paradigm – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I even saw an ehical [sic] dimension to The Catcher in the Rye.
By the time I began high school and took a real history class, I was learning just how real that paradigm is in the world. I learned about the Native Americans and what befell them at the hands of European settlers. I learned about how the descendents [sic] of those European settlers were in turn oppressed under the tyranny of King George III.
I read about Paul Revere, Tom Paine, and how Americans began an armed insurgency against British forces – an insurgency we now celebrate as the American revolutionary war. As a kid I even went on school field trips just blocks away from where we sit now. I learned about Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and the fight against slavery in this country. I learned about Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor. I learned about Anne Frank, the Nazis, and how they persecuted minorities and imprisoned dissidents. I learned about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights struggle.
Moving on from his allegations of Islamist sympathy, including a few more baseless remarks that one should only take seriously if they think Palmer has the ability to read minds, Palmer then moves onto Snowden.
So what then are we to make of Greenwald’s involvement in the Snowden leak, for which Eisenberg insisted he be honoured at the expense of the Charlie Hebdo dead?
It is possible, I think, for reasonable people to disagree about the value of what Snowden disclosed, and the merits of his actions. But any serious assessment of either needs to take account of the enormous harm done to American credibility, diplomacy, and security as the US government struggles to contain the spread of jihadist terror and to defend its soldiers and citizens. The most generous reading of Snowden’s actions recognises this as collateral damage inflicted in pursuit of a greater libertarian good.
Revealingly, Palmer cites nothing as a source for his claim of the "enormous harm done to American credibility, diplomacy, and security." While the US may have faced repercussions in terms of its global credibility (as it well should have), there is no evidence that Snowden's leaks truly damaged the nation's security or contributed to "the spread of jihadist terror." Palmer's failure to give any evidence that this allegation is true is a useful illustration of the integrity of those claiming it is.
But Glenn Greenwald will make no such allowance. On the contrary, he has taken undisguised satisfaction in the havoc Snowden’s NSA leaks have caused, not least because he believes that the war on terror presently being waged against jihadist fanatics like Tarek Mehanna and the Kouachi brothers is a monstrous injustice. In the ongoing battle between democracy and religious totalitarianism, Greenwald has defiantly taken the side of the latter.
As Palmer likely knows, Greenwald supports genuine democracy (as opposed to the farce that poses as such in the US, for instance), and there is, again, no evidence for his support of "religious totalitarianism." The war on terror has, in fact, been a monstrous injustice, though one can't expect a person as morally repugnant and intellectually shameless as Palmer to acknowledge that.
So, Greenwald’s condemnation of Charlie Hebdo‘s murdered staff was – like his position on pretty much everything – tediously predictable, and it rested on a refusal to perceive the rather large difference between fascism and its antithesis. For someone who postures as a First Amendment absolutist, this is a considerable moral failure.
All that can be said to this is that if Palmer thinks he has proven Greenwald's "refusal to perceive the rather large difference between fascism and its antithesis," he is very sadly mistaken.
But Eisenberg nominated Greenwald in Charlie Hebdo’s stead, not in spite of such views, but precisely because of them. In their own minds, the PEN dissenters were taking a courageous, principled, and nostalgic stand: courageous in its refusal to be swept along by liberal moral orthodoxy; principled in its rejection of sentimentality; and nostalgic in its defiant celebration of 1968’s once-uncompromising anti-Imperialism.
It didn’t matter that many of the murdered staff at Charlie Hebdo were themselves soixante-huitard veterans of the New Left, nor that they had retained the New Left’s anti-authoritarianism, its reflexive sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and its hatred of the unreconstructed nationalist far-right. For their refusal to qualify their mockery of radical Islam with an acknowledgment of its value in the fight against Zionism, Western racism, neoliberalism, foreign policy, and all the rest of it, they were deemed guilty of selling out their own radical spirit of ’68. And for lending their assistance to a ‘narrative’ (as one of the PEN dissenters termed it) that serves a baleful Western agenda, they were denounced.
One may question Charlie Hebdo's "reflexive sympathy for the Palestinian cause" given that, according to Diana Johnstone, "In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media." As for the idea that its mockery of radical Islam was the issue, that is simply another falsehood. Greenwald's problems with Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with its mockery of radical Islam, as previously noted, and I would again urge everyone to read Olivier Cyran's letter, which makes clear how Charlie's mockery of Muslims went well beyond radical Islamists.

In a paragraph that is fitting for the utter garbage that has preceded it, Palmer's article concludes:
The idea that Glenn Greenwald knows anything about the spirit of ’68 fills me with scepticism. I suspect he could hardly care less. But his inchoate rage against the West was useful to Eisenberg and her allies even so. Greenwald may be applauded by the likes of David Duke for circulating Jew-hatred; he may defend theo-fascists and neo-Nazis and denounce their opponents with rather more enthusiasm than is either seemly or necessary; and he may observe a shabby silence about the repression of dissent in authoritarian and theocratic states. But he may be judged to have “fastidiously exercised his courage for the good of humanity” just the same because, like Deborah Eisenberg and the rest of the self-regarding PEN dissenters, what actually fires his perverse moral disgust is not the threat to liberty and free speech posed by lethal theocratic terror, but the war being waged by the West to defeat it.
This article is nothing more than a McCarthyite smear attempting to silence criticisms of Western governments, from yet another one of their apologists. Predictably, it has caught on with similar apologists for Western crimes, with a similar (and, for their ideology, necessary) lack of moral integrity and intellectual honesty. Palmer's moronic and utterly ludicrous diatribe serves no purpose whatsoever, except for one: it discredits both him and anyone foolhardy enough to lend their approval to it. 

An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders

Dear Senator Sanders,

First of all, thank you for what you've done so far. While I have my differences with you, I appreciate both much of what you've done in Congress and your presidential campaign. It must be pretty taxing to devote time and energy to a campaign that's been widely dismissed by the professional pundit class as quixotic and doomed, and I think your campaign has done a lot of good in terms of the mobilization it's brought and the attention it's drawn to certain issues. So, again, thank you.

Secondly, I'll say something that we both know: the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign have been
Bernie Sanders
ridiculously unfair to you. They've collaborated to make sure that there are as few debates as possible, and that the ones that do happen are awkwardly scheduled; the Clinton campaign has accused you of racism and sexism; and then, of course, we have the recent attempt by the DNC to bar your campaign from accessing voter information, on flimsy pretenses, and the Clinton campaign's baseless accusations that you were stealing voter information from them. If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, it will be in no small part thanks to what it's fair to call "playing dirty."

Now, full disclosure before I get to where this is leading up to: I'm not a shrewd political insider who has some kind of experience to boast of. I'm an idealistic college student who's majoring in English, and just happens to follow politics very closely (some might say religiously). So I'm not making the suggestion I'm about to make because I think I've got this situation completely figured out. I'm making it because, if I've stumbled onto something useful, I want to share it, and maybe what I'm about to suggest has crossed your mind but you just needed some small encouragement. End of disclaimer.

What I'm suggesting is that, if you can't win the Democratic nomination, maybe you should run an Independent campaign. I'm sure, given that you haven't dropped out, that you've not given up hope on winning the nomination, and I haven't given up hope of it either. I still intend to vote for you in my state's primary, and I'm making no assumptions about who will win the nomination. But if it does become clear that Clinton will win--clear enough that you're going to drop out of the race--I'm asking you to at least think about mounting an Independent bid.

I recognize this might not be a very appealing idea for you. For one thing, we've already had a candidate in this election who's threatened to run as an Independent if he doesn't win his party's nomination: Donald Trump. And no one could blame you for wanting to merit as few comparisons to him as possible. But we both know that you haven't been treated fairly, and I think that matters in this case. It isn't personal vanity to to mount an Independent campaign when you've been unfairly denied the nomination of a major party.

I also understand that you've previously promised you would not do this. Obviously, it would be good to keep that promise under normal circumstances, but given how badly you've been treated, I don't think it's unfair to renege. It sort of goes without saying that when running a campaign you shouldn't lie about your opponent, and that if you're running a party you shouldn't try to rig the nomination process in one person's favor, and Clinton and the DNC have failed to live up to these standards. So I don't think it's unreasonable to say that things have changed enough since you made your promise for you to possibly go back on it.

The truth is, Senator Sanders, that at this point you are standing as an ambassador of sorts for an important cause--a movement that rejects the increasing plutocraticization of America. Given your campaign, you're maybe the most visible politician in America right now who stands as a representative of this movement, and you're thus the most plausible person to run for president as an Independent on a left-wing, anti-plutocracy platform. Sure, someone else could be found to do so, but you're the person who's been running for president for months and attracting crowds of tens of thousands. A lot of people--myself included--desperately want someone to vote for in the general election who's running on a platform like yours, and are reluctant to settle for Hillary Clinton, who clearly isn't. I don't know yet if I would vote for her if she won the nomination, but if she does win and I choose not to, I would feel far more as if I was making meaningful statement if I could vote for you instead.

I know, and understand, one of your big concerns: acting as a spoiler candidate and helping to get a Republican elected. But I'll remind you that there are three reasonable possibilities: first of all, you could win. It would be unprecedented, sure, but the country is in a pretty unprecedented state, so anything is possible. Secondly, you could have no effect on who won. Either Hillary could get elected without you, or the Republican could win with enough of the vote to make it clear that even without your candidacy they would have still won. That would be disheartening, but at least your candidacy would give the voters a real choice, and wouldn't even have caused any harm in the process. Maybe, in the long run, it would still do some good. So it's fair to say that before you jump to the third option--you help elect the Republican--you should consider these two and weigh the risks and benefits.

That being said, let's examine possibility number three. Trust me when I say there's few things more terrifying to me than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump as president, and even Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would still be very bad news. A Republican presidency would be a disaster, without a doubt. But I think we both know that we're already watching a disaster unfold. The country is clearly on an unsustainable path, and seven years of Obama have not yet changed that. Would four or eight years of Clinton be any different, in that respect? It's pretty doubtful.

If we have twelve or sixteen years straight of Democratic control of the White House and the country continues to be in the bad shape it's been in, negative consequences are likely. Even if Hillary Clinton defeats the Republican nominee to win the presidency, there's no reason some equally bad or worse Republican couldn't win the White House in 2020 or 2024. I think we know that Clinton is not going to fix the problems afflicting the country, and so the potential for a demagogue like Trump will remain, maybe increase. Why kick the can down the road?

Perhaps if we had four years of Republican rule, it would be awful enough that we could not only get a real progressive elected president, but sweep in Congressional majorities to give that president some chance of enacting a progressive agenda, whereas, even putting aside her own corporatism, Clinton would have to deal with ongoing gridlock due to how many Republicans there are in Congress. Electing mainstream Democrats is, clearly enough, not going to get the job done. If a Republican gets elected, we can at least say that in the midterms and the next presidential election, there could be a real possibility of electing genuine progressives. While the short-term damage would doubtless be smaller under Clinton, we would still continue down the same unsustainable path and the likelihood of being able to elect large numbers of progressives (and possibly a progressive president) by the end of 2020 would be much smaller. I realize the thought of Cruz or Trump as president is absolutely stomach-churning. But in the long run, maybe--just maybe--it could be better than a never-ending string of Wall Street-friendly Democrats.

We also have to consider how damaging it would be to the progressive movement if Clinton gets the nomination and is elected president. As mentioned, Clinton and the DNC have conspired and acted in completely unethical ways to try to get her the nomination. If we allow that strategy to work, and allow Clinton to be elected, we have tacitly told the Democratic elites that it is okay if they do everything they can to keep a true progressive from getting the nomination, because ultimately there will be no consequences for their bad behavior--they'll still win elections, and progressives will shut up and fall in line. What hope do we have for the Democrats to become a serious force for change if we send them that message? The best way I can think of for punishing their behavior is if you run as an Independent, should you fail to win the nomination.

Even taking all of this into account, I'm only willing to tell you that maybe you should run as an Independent if you don't win the nomination. A lot could happen in the next months. If Trump is truly able to win the GOP nomination, that could be a real reason to try to elect whoever gets the Democratic nomination, given how unpredictable Trump is and the extraordinary threat he could pose to civil liberties. If Clinton suddenly tacks to the left, that could be another reason to put aside any idea of an Independent run.

In any case, I recognize that I'm just an idealistic college student, and I only ask that you consider what I've said. Ultimately, I just don't want you to completely rule out an Independent bid without considering all the possibilities. Perhaps you've already considered everything I've said here, and perhaps much of what I've said doesn't merit serious consideration. I'm no expert, and in no position to speak authoritatively on this issue. But I hope you will take my arguments for whatever they're worth, and I wish you the best for the rest of the campaign. Hopefully, you'll be able to win the nomination and render everything I've said here moot.

Your ally,
H.S. Buchanan

LATER NOTE: I replaced a link to an article by H.A. Goodman, due to the noxious reputation he has created for himself, as well as a dead link. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sam Harris's Increasing Absurdity

If, say, a year and a half ago, you'd asked me my opinion on Sam Harris, I wouldn't have said anything very positive. However, I would not have described him as a raving lunatic whose comments have the intellectual merit of the screeching of a chimpanzee. Perhaps it's just my perception, but it seems to me that Sam Harris has gotten increasingly bad recently. Again, I was never a fan, but there was certainly a point where I could at least respect his intellect more than I can now.
Sam Harris (Peter Yang, taken 
from Wired)

First, let me say what nice things I can about Harris; they are few, but not insignificant. For one thing Harris is articulate and is a good writer; even when I've thought his arguments were absurd or completely ludicrous, I've rarely thought his writing, or his manner of presenting his arguments, was poor. Also, when he actually sticks to the one field he's unquestionably an expert on--neuroscience--he's quite informative. I read his essay Free Will a while back, and thought he made a strong case for the nonexistence of free will (a position he and I happen to share).

I've long thought, though, that he's used his skills in writing and arguing to attract followers to an ideology that's far from the rationalism that he pretends to espouse. Now, however, he seems to have to have kind of stopped even trying to sound intellectual a lot of the time. Rather, he increasingly just sounds as irrational and deluded as he actually is.

Let's start back in October of this year, where Harris was interviewed by YouTuber Kyle Kulinski. It was an interesting interview. For one thing, Harris said the Tsarnaev brothers should have had "nothing but gratitude" toward the US. Now, of course, the Tsarnaev's terrorist attack should be condemned; but by Harris's standard here, had they even nonviolently protested US foreign policy they would have been guilty of some sort of sin.

Glenn Greenwald, Harris's
perpetual nemesis (from ala.org)
In the same interview, Harris went into a thought experiment (those familiar with Harris will know he has a seemingly endless supply of largely superfluous such experiments) where he imagined a terrorist holding hostages and a sniper whose goal is to kill the terrorist in order to save the hostages, but who misses and accidentally kills a hostage. Under the logic of Glenn Greenwald (one of Harris's major foes), claims Harris, the sniper would be "just another murderer." This is in response to the fact that Greenwald rejects the argument that when the US bombs or invades another country, we can say it's not accountable for innocents who die just because the US "didn't mean" to kill any innocents. Anyone who honestly thinks the US government is as benevolent in its foreign policy as a sniper trying to rescue hostages has either followed the news very poorly over the past decades or is insanely tribalistic. Neither possibility reflects well on Harris, as a pretended public intellectual.

A few minutes later, he says that the goal of the Bush administration in invading Iraq was simply to turn Iraq "into Nebraska" (given that that's what he thinks they would do with the entire Middle East if they had the powers of God). Harris could learn something from conservatives Stefan Harper and Jonathan Clarke, who argue that the real motivation was "[t]he security of Israel...and access to Middle East energy resources." That sounds a little different from turning Iraq into Nebraska. We should also note that by Harris's account the intentions of the neoconservative Bush administration were surprisingly quite a lot more benevolent than those of the Eisenhower administration, which unquestionably helped throw out Iran's democratically elected, secular reformist prime minister in order to protect Western oil interests. Not many liberals would argue that the Republican Party is more concerned with human rights now than it was under Eisenhower, but apparently Sam Harris is one of them (unless he'd simply deny the facts of the Iran coup, which is also possible).

Harris's more recent podcast with British neoconservative Douglas K. Murray was the real kicker, though. There were a few quotes that were enough to get attention all by themselves. For one, Harris defended Ted Cruz's argument that we should only let in Christian refugees from Syria, criticizing those who would deem Cruz a bigot. There are, well, many problems with that. For one thing, Ted Cruz almost certainly is bigoted against Muslims, which of course would motivate his thinking on this issue. Secondly, if we open the door to wholesale discrimination against Muslim refugees on the basis that they're "dangerous," why not atheists, too? After all, there are a lot of people who perceive them as being dangerous. Thirdly, this essentially means discriminating against thousands and leaving them in a war-torn region because if we let them in they could maybe commit an act of terrorism which could maybe kill a likely pretty small number of people. That's a little selfish. And, of course, contrary to what Harris asserts, jihadism is not the only security concern when taking in refugees; Christian Syrians could commit acts of violence, too. So the question to whether Cruz's proposal is crazy is definitely not the resounding "of course not" that Harris gives. Since then, Harris has claimed he wasn't defending Cruz's "categorical exclusion" of Muslims, but does seem to grant that he's okay with at least some preference for non-Muslim refugees.
Neocon Douglas Murray
(from drrichswier.com)

Worse than that, though, Harris stated that, given the choice between Ben Carson and Noam Chomsky, he would vote for Ben Carson every time because "[h]e understands that jihadists are the enemy" and has a better "understanding of what’s happening now in the world." That's right: Sam Harris prefers a man whose own adviser has said he's clueless on foreign policy to one of the top intellectuals and foreign policy experts in the world. That speaks for itself.

But it gets worse. I had low expectations for the podcast from those couple quotes alone, but they could hardly prepare me for the ugliness of the actual affair itself. A particularly nasty moment came from Murray, who went on a sickening rant ridiculing and belittling anyone who identifies as transgender without having gender reassignment surgery. Harris guffaws throughout this rant and calls it "hilarious" when Murray finishes, going on to praise him for it. "Liberal" Sam Harris, everyone.

Later on in the podcast, Harris says that "obscurantism" on the issue of radical Islam (i.e. presenting any narrative he doesn't like) needs to become as socially unacceptable as racism. This is from someone who constantly poses as wanting to have a rational, open-minded discussion about the issues, and yet he's saying that people who make the arguments that Glenn Greenwald or Noam Chomsky do need to be abhorred in the same way that outspoken racists are. That's rational and open-minded?

Due to the reaction to his podcast, Harris put a seventeen-minute-long addendum at the end of it where he sounds less like a Ph.D. in neuroscience and more like Donald Trump. He starts off by referring to Max Blumenthal of AlterNet as a "fake journalist" (whatever that's supposed to mean). He then states that Cenk Uygur of the web show The Young Turks seemed be to be having a "breakdown," given the videos he made responding to Harris. (I'll let you be the judge of whether Uygur is having a breakdown in the two videos, found here and here, which have predictably been swarmed and downvoted by Harris's hordes of sycophantic followers online). Addressing his support for Ben Carson over Noam Chomsky, he boasts that he would nonetheless be "far more articulate" in explaining why Carson shouldn't be elected president than Blumenthal or Uygur. How professional.

Moving onto Chomsky (whom he's been eager to repeatedly attack since he published a widely ridiculed email exchange between Chomsky and himself), Harris notes that Chomsky is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, snidely commenting that "how that differs from Marxism, you're welcome to write your dissertation on that. Good luck." Meaning what, exactly? Does Sam Harris not realize that red-baiting went out of style with the end of the Cold War, except in circles of far-right nutjobs? Or is he just stooping to base anti-intellectualism, and mocking any radical leftist who bothers to make a distinction between their ideology and Marx's?
Activist Noam Chomsky
(from Guernica)

He then dubs Chomsky an "anarcho-masochist" ("masochist," followers of Harris will know, is one of his favorite terms for anyone who thinks Western foreign policy has played a large role in creating the problem of Islamist extremism). Harris goes on to comment, particularly ludicrously, that if aliens invaded and began to exterminate the human race, he'd "half-expect Chomsky to get on Democracy Now! and say that we deserved it." This is truly idiotic. Chomsky has never said that the United States "deserves" the problems of jihadism or terrorism. To claim he has is exactly the sort of misrepresentation that Harris constantly claims, ad nauseam, that his critics are committing against him.

Sam Harris's recent behavior toward his critics, as should be clear already, is especially reprehensible. Virtually any criticism of Harris is now certain to be deemed "defamatory" or a "misrepresentation." Take Jeff Sparrow's recent criticism of New Atheism, which Harris deemed "defamatory drivel" (per the usual, not bothering to cite any particular instance of defamation within the article). Read it for yourself and see if there's anything that could reasonably be called defamatory. Or look at this series of tweets from Glenn Greenwald, which Harris also calls defamatory (see what I meant about ad nauseam yet?), in which Greenwald (accurately) quotes Harris and links to articles written by him, along with making a few mocking comments about Harris and his followers' intellectual dishonesty. Sam Harris seems to sincerely believe that defamation is synonymous with simple mockery or insult. One is strongly reminded that Sam Harris has a degree in neuroscience, not in law.

That smear is not enough for Sam, though. He's also accused critics of endangering his and his friends' safety. In a recent Salon interview, he stated that those who speak out against Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a close ally of his) "make her life more dangerous in the process." This mirrors the time when, late last year, he stated that in retweeting an image that quotes him (again, accurately), Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan were "consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process."

Harris made much of the fact that the original tweet had stated that "this isn't a rational thinker, this is a genocidal fascist maniac." However, it's in no way clear that Greenwald and Aslan retweeted it because of that rather than the accurate quote from Harris, superimposed on a (pretty creepy-looking) picture of him. In any case, the quote--justifying killing people for "dangerous" beliefs--is exactly the sort of thing you would hear from a genocidal fascist maniac. Harris insists that it actually means something totally different in context than what it appears to at first glance; I personally disagree. You can judge for yourself. In any case, it's unclear how an accurate quote from him or the harsh words of a random Twitter user increase his security concerns; and it's pathetically dishonest of him to bring it up as an attempt to shut down debate or attack his opponents.

It is not surprising, given all of this, that Sam Harris is not really taken seriously by anyone but his legions of frequently cult-like followers. As Scott Atran, an anthropologist and yet another person whose views Harris has distorted, notes:
I am a lead investigator on several multiyear, multidisciplinary field-based science projects sponsored by the Department of Defense, including “Motivation, Ideology, and the Social Process in Radicalization,” aspects of which are taught to military personnel from general officers down. And I am recurrently asked to give briefings on these subjects to the White House, Congress and allied governments. I know of no comparable demands or operational interest among the political, defense or intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its allies for Harris’s musings on religious ecstasy.
Given Sam Harris's absurd defenses of US foreign policy, it says something that even the US government seems to prefer one of Harris's intellectual opponents over him. On that note, I will wrap up this blog post, which would undoubtedly be deemed "defamatory" or full of "misrepresentations" by its subject, were he ever to read it, and may very well be called such by one or more of his followers, should any of them read it. Should the intellectually vacuous attack
be used against me, I'll take it as a compliment. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Trump's March Toward Fascism

It's a little tough to try to use the word "fascist" as anything but an insult today. In 1944, George Orwell noted that the term was usually "degrade[d]...to the level of a swearword." The intervening years have done little, if anything, to help restore meaning to the term. If one thinks of fascism as being authoritarian, illiberal, undemocratic, and sold using empty nationalism, then certainly we've seen a bipartisan legacy of fascism (or proto-fascism) over the past few decades, and from the Republican Party in particular.
Donald Trump and Mussolini; some have noted similarities
(Trump Image: REUTERS/Dominick Reuter/Files; 
Mussolini Image: YouTube, MrFlogeras;
Edited by me)

However, as ominous as the developments in the United States have been (particularly in the post-9/11 era), we obviously do not have fascism in the same sense as Mussolini's Italy or Nazi Germany. Our treatment of other countries and populations has often been brutal in ways it's fair to compare to those two ("Godwin's Law" notwithstanding), but internally we are obviously not at the level those countries were, or anything resembling it.

But with Donald Trump, we are now looking at something a little, well, different. It's different enough that right-wingers and Republican Party insiders are openly calling him a fascist or accusing him of fascism. John Kasich, one of Trump's many opponents in the GOP primary, released an ad alluding to Martin Niemöller's famous statement about the Nazis ("First they came...") when discussing Trump.

But, of course, just because Republicans are accusing Trump of being a fascist doesn't mean he is one (although it is a bad sign). If we want to talk about fascism not just in the colloquial sense but in the truly serious sense, we'll have to get a little academic. Professor Roger Griffin gave us this influential definition of fascism: "Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism."

That's a mouthful, so let's unpack it a little. Griffin says that fascism's "mythic core"--the mythology that is at the center of the ideology--is "a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism." "Palingenetic" (aside from, somewhat amusingly and perhaps appropriately, containing Sarah Palin's last name) means focusing on a sort of national rebirth, as Griffin makes clear. We don't have to look far for that in the Trump campaign. His slogan, after all, is "Make America Great Again." So in the past we were great--now we're not. Our country has to rise from the ashes and return to its former glory.

That idea is hardly unique to fascism, but fascism does, according to Griffin, have a very strong focus on it. If you look at the headings for Trump's positions on his campaign website, literally every one ends with the phrase "Make America Great Again." I think we can all agree the emphasis is pretty strong. So palingenetic, check.

How about populist? Griffin defines it as "the ‘people power’ generated when enough of the ‘masses’ are effectively mobilized by mythic energies, whether spontaneous or contrived." We've seen the myth already--America's former greatness, waiting to be restored. It's certainly mobilized a lot of people; even though the establishment hates Trump, he's still sitting pretty at the top of the polls for the GOP primary, where he's been for months. There's no doubt his base is the "masses" and not the elites, and that he's succeeding because of his appeal to everyday people who are frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. So it's pretty fair to call him populist.

How about ultra-nationalism? Griffin states:
I intended it to denote not just an overtly anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary form of nationalism...but to embrace the vast range of ethnocentrisms which arise from the intrinsic ambiguities of the concept ‘nation’, and from the many permutations in which racism can express itself as a rationalized form of xenophobia.
So there's a bit to examine in that one term alone. Anti-liberal? Keep in mind, of course, we're not talking about liberalism in the sense of the Democratic Party, we're talking liberalism in the sense of liberal democracy--constitutionally protected rights and such. But we don't have to look too far for that sort of thing in the Trump campaign.

Let's start with his immigration plan. Donald Trump is actually proposing the greatest forced population transfer in recorded history. He is planning on rounding up eleven million people and shipping them out of the country. Don't forget, furthermore, that he would like to deport people born in the United States and constitutionally granted citizenship. For this to be anything except a total fantasy, we would likely have to have something resembling a police state. How else are you going to track down well over ten million people and send them out of the country?

And now, after the Paris attacks, Trump has been proposing things that are--well, something else. He has stated he would "certainly" implement a national database of Muslims (even though he later denied saying this). He's also talked about closing down mosques, which is, obviously, a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.

Anti-parliamentary? Well, in case you haven't noticed, Trump doesn't talk much about how, as president, he'd be introducing bills to Congress. He just kind of says he would do things as president. It's pretty clear that his vision is of a strong executive branch able to do pretty much whatever it wants, unhampered by Congress. Anti-parliamentary indeed.

Then we have the possibility of a "vast range of ethnocentrisms" and "permutations in which racism can express itself as a rationalized form of xenophobia." Well, we know Trump's distaste for immigrants (who are largely rapists and other dangerous criminals, he says). It's pretty clear that he's promoting Islamophobia, too, given his proposals about a national Muslim database and shutting down mosques. On top of these completely heinous policy proposals, Trump has also just flat-out lied, claiming that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11. He's refused to back down from this claim even after it's been pointed out how it's completely baseless and false.

But, apparently, targeting Muslims and Hispanics is not quite enough for Trump. He also tweeted a graphic with a caricature of a stereotypical black gangsta that claimed that the vast majority of whites who are murdered die at the hands of a black murderer. In fact, actual statistics indicate that only about fourteen percent of white murder victims were killed by blacks. The graphic appears to have originated from an actual neo-Nazi who openly admires Hitler, not exactly surprisingly. Whether or not Trump personally tweeted this, he has not apologized for it or taken it back.

Then we have his supporters' assault on a Black Lives Matter activist at one of his rallies. That wouldn't necessarily reflect so badly on Trump himself except that he actually stated that "maybe" his supporters were doing the right thing by physically assaulting someone for saying words they didn't like.

So there you have it--Trump is pretty clearly running on a platform that strongly resembles real, honest-to-God fascism. It resembles it in its propaganda, its appeals to the masses, and its actual policy proposals, which would require a massive, enormously strong and intrusive government. The best we can possibly hope is that this is just a clever con job by Trump because he knows he can get people to vote for him with this sort of stuff, and that (God forbid) if he actually did get elected president, he'd just sort of work within the system and put aside the deranged policies he's been talking about.

At this point--for me, anyway--it's almost hard to imagine Trump not getting the GOP nomination. He's been at the top of the polls for months, and nothing he does seems to hurt him. Nor is there any establishment candidate who seems strong enough to pose a real threat. If Trump does get the nomination and win the election (which is harder to imagine, but not impossible), we could be looking at a truly extreme transformation of the country. Even if he loses the election, just by getting the nomination he will likely leave a lasting impact on the Republican Party. If the thought of that terrifies you, it's because it should.