Tag Archives: Bipartisan Consensus

Can U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?

4 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This essay appeared in its original form as an editorial in TRANSCEND Media Service, #654, on 31 August 2020. The text below is enlarged and somewhat modified.

I regard TMS as the best curated online weekly gathering of worthwhile writing from a progressive standpoint. It is inspired by the remarkable scholarship and leadership of Johan Galtung that has stimulated peace researchers and public intellectuals for more than six decades. TMS is brilliantly edited each week by Antonio C.S. Rosa, working from Porto, Portugal.]

 

 

Can U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?

 

The 2020 Election and its Aftermath

I share the view that the 2020 election in the United States is above all a referendum on fascism, and for this and many other reasons I hope it produces a Biden landslide, including control of the U.S. Congress by the Democratic Party. As well, it is my fervent wish that this outcome will be followed by a smooth transfer of political power.

From the perspective of the present, this kind of benign political scenario seems unlikely to materialize. Instead, we can more realistically expect a close election, which means that if Trump wins the fascist threat grows beyond control, while if he loses, he seems poised to refuse the result, charging voting fraud, and clinging to the presidency despite being rejected by the voting public. This prospect would provoke an unprecedented constitutional crisis and could be resolved by the first coup in American history, an unthinkable scenario until Trump came alone. Even if Trump is coercively removed from the White House, the fascist cause is likely to flourish as his more ardent followers seem ready to incite civil war rather than accept a political defeat, however warranted.

And even should these horrors be avoided, or dealt with in a responsible manner, the aftermath is likely to be deeply unpleasant, raising the question, above all, whether Donald Trump’s multiple crimes shall be shielded from prosecution, and a massive gift of impunity bestowed. If accountability and the rule of law are chosen, there would be myriad trials and calls of political martyrdom. Maybe the best solution would be asylum for Trump in Putin’s Russia. This kind of ‘retirement’ arrangement would have the delicious irony of having Trump share his place of refuge with Edward Snowden. There is a kind of political poetry present as Snowden told the world damning secrets about the U.S. surveillance regime while Trump is trying his hardest to keep his nefarious doings as secret as possible for as long as he can.

Deeper Structural Concerns (1) Reimagining U.S. Federalism

Even in the unlikely event that all goes well procedurally, it is no time to gloat about the vindication of the American version of constitutional democracy. Should Trump upset present expectations, and win in November, he will almost certainly again have the perverse, and now anachronistic, peculiarities of the Electoral College to thank. Trump will have little trouble putting out of mind the awkward fact that he prevailed although he once again as in 2016 won fewer votes than his defeated opponent. In 2020 there is no sufficient justification for counting a vote in Idaho or Montana as more valuable than a vote in California or New York. Since the winner in each state gets the whole of its Electoral College vote whether the margin of victory is one vote or one million votes. Democracy as a political system loses legitimacy whenever it cannot dislodge such anachronistic quirks of its electoral system, and the real mandate of a voting majority of the citizenry is denied the fruits of victory.

Of course, there is an important riposte to the effect that the large populations of the two coastal states, with it greater attachment to liberal values, would dominate the electoral process, and do not reflect the country as a whole. It is also claimed that this kind of direct citizen voting framework would further marginalize the relevance of the ‘flyover’ states, and in this sense undermine the federalist character of the republic, which was integral to the envisioned constitutional balance between unity and decentralization that informed the vision of the founders. As such what is put in relief are two distinct questions: was the electoral college a clever solution to this challenge of empowering and protecting diversity while creating a desirable level of unity when the United States was established as a mega-state in the late 18th century? Has this ‘solution’ become in recent decades an outmoded model of federalism given digitized re-framings of people, ideas, and consciousness that has so far occurred in the 21st century. Such re-framings exhibit a variety of tendencies toward localism and centralism, with diminished relevance to the units constituting the sovereign state as political actor? Put differently, is not the country at a stage of political development that federalism needs to be reimagined from ecological, cyber, temporal, humanist, and cosmopolitan perspectives? Reimagining would lead to a deemphasis on the spatial compartmentalization of 50 distinct political entities in the context of national elections as well as acknowledge the deterritorialization of sovereign states, and  especially the United States, as the sole ‘global state.’

A further concern is with the impact of federalist arrangements on the wellbeing of peoples is its dual character. Federalism has given a safe harbor to the ugliest forms of racism and bigotry, but it has also given space for sanctuary and humane values when the central government turns against vulnerable parts of society in a regressive direction. The Trump phenomenon has confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that all political arrangements are fragile, subject to lethal manipulation when the self-restraint and decency of ruling elites is replaced by narcissism, greed, criminality, and demagoguery.

(2) Rigging the Results

As others have observed, Joe Biden will need much more than a simple majority to win the election. He will need a landslide that overcomes not just the impacts of the Electoral College, but also that neutralizes the distorting effects of Republican gerrymandering and widespread voter suppression practices designed to keep persons of color, the poor, and those living in progressive urban neighborhoods from voting. Because Republicans are so focused on winning and upholding privilege whatever the consequences, they have been using their extensive control of state legislatures and governorships throughout the country to disenfranchise their adversaries while organizing their bases of support to participate in vital elections.

Again, the Democratic Party has its own inglorious past, which includes a past shameless reliance on machine politics featuring city hall political manipulations of voting patterns and electoral results. The great game of American politics has always been to varying degrees a game played by unscrupulous actors with many dirty tricks up their soiled sleeves. Political parties are formed to protect interests and win elections, which means that principles tend to be put aside, and the truly virtuous potential leaders tend to be repulsed by the game or excluded by the party leadership. Bernie Sanders is a perfect case in point, being too virtuous, too principled, and too independent to represent the Democratic Party, and this despite showing his relative popularity with the citizenry, surely greater than the candidate chosen by the gatekeepers. In this illuminating respect, there are certain considerations that outweigh winning elections. Concretely, the Democratic Party establishment would rather go with the weaker candidate than go with a stronger alternative who would threaten the donor-driven consensus.

(3) The Erosion and Debasement of Choice: Breaking the ‘Bipartisan Consensus’

There are further related reasons for humility about the functioning of democracy in the United States that extend beyond the electoral system and the disturbing behavior of political parties. The most glaring shortcomings are associated with the absence of alternative approaches made available to the voting public on the most crucial issues confronting society. It relates to the failure of the two-party system when neither party possesses a willingness to support candidates who are willing to advocate overcoming the distortions on the quality of life and governance being wrought by plutocracy, global militarism, predatory capitalism, climate change, and systemic racism.

The current American version of two-party democracy has steadily decayed due to the embedded bipartisan consensus that was originally a functional feature of the political landscape during World War II when the country was productively united in support of an anti-fascist war. This consensus became substantially and more dubiously reconstituted as the ideological foundation of an anti-Communist global crusade that set boundaries on political diversity during the long Cold War. Among the harmful effects of this two-party consensus was curtailing mainstream political debate, discrediting socialist thought, making the outcome of national elections count for far less, making a war economy and militarized state permanent fixtures of governance, generating ‘a deep state’ entrusted with sustaining the consensus, and instrumentalizing respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

It might have been hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet collapse a few years later would have encouraged taking stock, a national turn toward peace, and a greater openness to progressive political ideas. Nothing of the sort occurred during the 1990s, a wasted decade of world order opportunity. The West won the Cold War, but lost the peace by its embrace of consumerism and an economy guided by efficiencies of capital rather than the wellbeing of peoples.

First, attention was redirected to the plutocratic benefits accruing from the absence of an ideological alternative to market-driven economic policy, which meant that the ethics of greed could be practiced without adverse political consequences. Accordingly, with the support of both political parties, the U.S. Government focused its attention on making the world safe for predatory capitalism, a set of policy priorities reflecting what became known as either ‘the Washington consensus’ or more politely, ‘neoliberal globalization.’  This economistic orientation, in effect, a capitalist version of Marxist materialism, encouraged consumerist orgies and environmental irresponsibility. This reflected civilian and most private sector priorities. It was not satisfactory for the militarists and arms dealers who also wanted, and maybe required, an enemy to make the case for continuing with wartime scale military budgets and for restoring their self-esteem as guardians of national and global security.

The first candidate to be a post-Communist enemy was Japan, with its disciplined work force and booming economy that was seen as a growing threat to American ascendancy, at least in the Pacific. This candidate to be the new enemy seemed rather implausible as Japan was the principal U.S. ally in the Pacific region since its defeat in World War II, and was impossible to cast as a security threat to Americn geopolitical primacy.

The next enemy candidate was a resurgent anti-Western Islam. Samuel Huntington’s thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations’ attracted political attention but it still was not plausible as a threat, given Western military dominance. The clash thesis did come to enjoy a dysfunctional credibility after the 9/11 attacks. These attacks produced ‘the war on terror,’ and did have the desired galvanizing effect of re-securitizing American foreign policy with a special emphasis on the Middle East where the energy future of the world seemed to be at risk. What ensued were several disastrous military interventions that resulted in geopolitical setbacks, while causing the devastation of a series of countries subjected to strife and chaos as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Next comes China, which seems to be a more familiar and plausible geopolitical adversary, but on further examination its role as ‘enemy’ is problematic. China has not attempted to challenge the West militarily or ideologically, but seems to be winning the competition for markets, economic expansionism, and technological innovativeness, and is now being cast by both wings of the American political establishment as a geopolitical adversary worth confronting. Not surprisingly, the Biden people seem as ready as the Trump autocracy to confront China and Iran, and even readier when it comes to Russia, although maybe in a more measured manner, but also one that may be more disposed to invite serious long-term engagements reinforced by a hypocritical solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and Uyghur struggles for human rights.

An America disgraced at home and abroad by its terrible performance in response to the COVID-19 challenge, is a wounded animal that has never been more at odds with the wellbeing of humanity, which urgently requires refocusing on human security, which needs to be concretized by reference to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, food and worker security, demilitarization, global health, and strengthened procedures for global cooperation. This can only happen if the militarist/plutocratic consensus is challenged from outside the party framework, by a movement rather than a political party.

The persistence of this dysfunctional bipartisan consensus represents an unauthorized redrafting of the social contract that continuously reshapes state/society relations to retain its status as a legitimate democracy. It is a political and moral scandal that a considerable fraction of the citizenry lacks health care, affordable higher education and housing, and the society as a whole endures acute inequalities, unjust taxation, infrastructure decay, and climate change without mounting a serious challenge within the two-party framework. Bernie Sander bravely tried twice to push the Democratic Party to the outer limits of the bipartisan consensus, but in the end both in 2016 and 2020 he was bloodied by the DNC establishment that refused to be pushed anywhere near the brink. It is notable that Sanders, like Trump from a rightest direction, sought to alter the outer limits of the consensus but never mounted direct assaults on the structural features of militarism or capitalism.

The Trump phenomenon is an extreme national example of the global populist drift away from democracy by alienated citizenries around the world who cast their votes for demagogues, that is, for individuals who are taking advantage of democratic procedures and institutions to hollow out democracy so as to move particular societies toward autocracy. Such a drift reflects the distinctive features of national narratives as well as reflects a certain set of global conditions that express alienation from what ‘democracy’ bestowed upon their lives. To distract and divert, scapegoating becomes a core tactics of these moves away from democratic cohesion. In a world of inequalities and global warming, there has arisen a frightening receptivity to blaming the stranger or the other for the unfairness being experienced in the forms of inequality, economic displacement, and erosions of national identity.

 

(4) Disenfranchising the World

A final concern involves the disenfranchisement of the peoples of the world. I would maintain that a legitimate U.S. democracy in the 21st century should enlarge its writ to heed the political will of those who reside beyond the territorial boundaries of the country and owe traditional allegiances to another country. These foreigners are deeply affected by the extra-national influence exerted by the United States on their lives and livelihood, and yet are without representation or any means to register formal approval or disapproval. The U.S. by virtue of its global reach, mainly through a network of military bases, naval forces patrolling the high seas, claims based on cyber and space security, and diplomatic leverage, often has more impact on foreign societies than their own government.

Should not consideration be given to some form of non-territorial enfranchisement (not necessarily a full and equal vote) that is more congruent with the realities of a networked, digital world than is the territorial sovereign state? It is time that we deploy our moral and political imagination to envision non-territorial democracy that takes account of geopolitical configurations of power as well as ecosystems that cannot function properly if subject to no source of governance with precedence over the claims of national sovereignty.  The statist territoriality of life on the planet has declined to the point where only multi-leveled democratic governance can hope to address humanely the multiple and diverse challenges directed at humanity as a whole. Europe has pioneered such a development on a regional level, and although paused at present, gives us existential strivings toward new forms of political community and governance.

 

Coda

In essence, we cannot be hopeful about the future unless we commit ourselves to the hard work of deterritorializing democracydemilitarizing the state, pacifying geopolitics, empowering people, and strengthening the United Nations and international law. As well, time as well as space must become integral elements of national, transnational, regional, and global policy formation and problem-solving. This means that short-termism must be supplanted by time horizons that are congruent with the nature of global challenges.

__________________________________________

 

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

8 Aug

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

 

During the height of the Cold War when it was viewed as disloyal and compromising to show a sympathetic interest in Marxism or sympathies with Soviet ideology, someone at the U.S. military base at Frankfurt distributed to the soldiers stationed there, a handwritten version of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in the form of petition. Very few of the soldiers approached were willing to affix their signatures, most alleging that this seemed a subversive document circulated by enemies of the United States, and was Soviet propaganda. Somehow the Western propaganda message that the Cold War was about the defense of ‘the free world’ against a totalitarian enemy had made no impact, or alternatively, that the free world had nothing to do with the substantive elements of freedom as social practice.

 

For me, and for the person who was using the petition to assess the commitment of Americans to the values of a free and democratic society, it conveyed the reality that what freedoms exist can be easily swept aside by an opportunistic or autocratic leadership. This perception has been confirmed, at least provisionally by Trump’s extreme encroachment on American institutions and civil liberties during his first term as president. A final confirmation would occur if Trump is able to hold onto power either by being reelected in November or by somehow managing to remain in the White House even if defeated by his electoral opponent.

 

There is another more subtle interpretation of the Frankfurt test. The political reality of systemic racism and discriminatory practices is so engrained in the lived experience of America as to make the U.S. Constitution seem indeed a radical document that must represent the views of an adversary ideology intent on undermining the American way of life. In effect, to implement fully the Bill of Rights would require nothing less than a revolution, and in this sense aa cross section of American soldiers were undoubtedly not so minded, and acted appropriately by refusing to endorse such drastic departures from their experience.

 

More disappointing to me is the degree to which Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 exhibited massive support for a regressive and demagogic leadership by an alienated American electorate. Of course, there were attenuating factors. Hillary Clinton, despite a poor campaign and a militarist foreign policy profile, won the popular vote by three million votes. Part of the

rightest populist backlash reflected a global trend, which was a result of the alienating impact of neoliberal globalization, and its production of drastic forms of inequality and its tendency to homogenize identity. Additionally, the American experience emphasized hostility to immigrants and Islam blamed for destroying the quality of life and bringing terrorism, crime, and drugs to the country, as well as losing a white identity for America as prefigure by the Obama presidency.

 

Now almost four years later, there is even less reason than in 2016 to regard Trump as an acceptable candidate even for Republicans who subscribe to a social contract that is based on a governing process of laws not men, and upholds ideas of separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial independence, as well as the Bill of Rights. On matters of material interests the two party system is hobbled by the persistence of the Cold War ‘bipartisan consensus’ that creates commonality of views on militarism, Wall Street capitalism, and Israel/Saudi Arabia. Such a consensus means that there is no pragmatic reason for Democrats or moderates to vote for Trump to uphold liberal/moderate self-interest and worldview. Although Republican campaign strategy and Trump rally rhetoric uses inflammatory rhetoric to portray Biden and the Democratic Party as ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ to make the middle of the voting spectrum to fear the material threat to their class interests if Democrats control the White House and Congress. In reality, only progressive have reason to ponder not voting or voting for a third party candidate as Biden, seen in abstract, offer little to hope for and nothing to inspire.

 

In the end, the future of the United States, and indirectly the world, rests on whether the fear of fascism exceeds the fear of left liberalism, as the balance plays out given the peculiarities of the electoral college system. It seems clear that the Trump base responds positively to Trump partly because he offers the prospect of a fascist future for the country premised on white racial supremacy and partly because of indifference to his ideas, giving their support having succumbed to the numbing excitement associated with his demagogic style of leadership even if it could cost them their life. For many in the muddled political middle, distressed by the Trump base but also wary of the more radical demands of Black Lives Matter and AOC Squad, the challenge is one of choosing the lesser of evils, which is analogous to the dilemma of progressives who wonder whether they can persuade themselves to pull levers that favors Democrats and Biden. The difference being that the moderates believe that the Democratic Party even with Biden will be pushed toward adopting the progressive agenda while many progressives believe that Biden will be ‘a feel better’ version of Trumpism, leaving the plutocratic and militarist pillars of neoliberal capitalism, somewhat deglobalized, but as sturdy as ever.

 

The immediate future of the United States will likely be determined by the results of the November election. For the first time in my life the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power respectful of the will of the people cannot be taken for granted. Unless Trumpist support shrinks dramatically the fascist threat will remain part of the scene even if Trump loses and leaves the White House without putting up a fight. If Trump should lose the election, despite rigging and gerrymandering, and yet refused to leave the White House, the resilience of the constitutional order will be severely tested, and left to the tender mercies of the military leadership, the deep state, and private sector elites, which in turn will assess the intensity of public outrage and the risks of civil strife. Trumpism will also be tested as to. whether its fascist leanings and demagogic submission are sufficiently belligerent to launch a second American civil war rather than loosen their grip on state power.

 

 

A Tale of Two Speeches: Marc Lamont Hill on Palestine, Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam         

23 Jan

[Prefatory note: This post if a modified and revised version of the previous post. I have rarely done this, but due to comments received, and further reflections on my part, I felt there was some aspects of the essay that should be clarified or elaborated. There are threemain points: what we learn about CNN from its treatment of Marc Lamont Hill; the special treatment accorded those that challenge that pillar of the bipartisan consensus that relates to unconditional support of Israel; the targeting of leading African Americans who dare speak out on mainstream controversial issues, a dynamic that goes back to Martin Luther King’s public opposition to the Vietnam War.]

 

 

A Tale of Two Speeches: Marc Lamont Hill on Palestine, Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam          

 

In my last post I complained about the news approach of CNN, and by indirection, the MSM. I complained that by being Trump-obsessed CNN helps pacify the American political scene, making us view demagogic politics as ‘a reality show.’ Beyond this obsession is inexplicable redundancy in which successive news programs cover the latest episode of Trump’s soap opera from virtually identical viewpoints, while ignoring the whole panorama of developments throughout the world.

 

It is an aspect of what the most perceptive commentators on the decline of democracy have begun with reason to call our post-political ‘democracy,’ which seems the reverse side of the coin in a plutocracy. Keeping the public entertained and diverted allows the grossly unjust and unequal distribution of wealth and income almost to disappear from the radar of discontent.  Part of this post-political reality show is to reduce the operative sphere of American politics to ‘the bipartisan consensus’ established in the United States after 1945. Such a pattern of subtle indoctrination provides an apolitical certificate of permanent approval to global militarism, neoliberal capitalism, and unconditional support for Israel.

 

Instead of weakening its grip on the national public imagination after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the socialist alternative, by declaring geopolitical peace and acting accordingly, the governing elites went in the opposite direction: privileging capital accumulation at the expense of human wellbeing and equity; a militarized unipolarity that overrides international law, UN authority, human rights, and international morality. It this reconfigured ‘bipartisan consensus’ that became the ideological sequel to the Cold War rivalry. It guides both the deep state and the established leadership of both political parties, which also underpins CNN’s diversionary approach to news coverage. In effect, Trump must go, or at least be managed, so that the bipartisan consensus can flourish.

 

The Israeli pillar of the bipartisan consensus is somewhat surprisingly more rigidly enforced in public space than the seemingly thicker pillars of global militarism and neoliberal capitalism. CNN occasionally stumbles by allowing a progressive critic of the Pentagon or Wall Street to get some air time. Such occurrences are hard to avoid ever since Bernie Sanders opposed Hilary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and put these issues on the national agenda. Nothing much happens except maybe a backroom reprimand to the producers of the news programs. It is not the same if the Israeli pillar of the bipartisan consensus is shaken even if only slightly. Then heads fall, and a visible reaffirmation of the consensus position is mandatory. CNN despite its wish to be trusted will not hesitate to treat any perception of sharp criticism of Israel as intolerable. The test of sharpness is whether it agitates militant Zionism as illustrated by the their malevolent reaction to the Hill speech.

   

The CNN dismissal of Marc Lamont Hill is the toxic icing on this particular cake. Hill a professor at Temple University and a regular consultant to CNN was dismissed in deference to unidentified Zionist pressures. Hill’s sole ‘wrong’ was to deliver a humane speech at a UN conference. He did voice support of Palestinian self-determination and other rights. Yet no fair reading of what Hill said at the UN or scrutiny of his overall career would reach any conclusion other than that this was a reasoned call for justice for Palestine along a path in which both Jews and Arabs could coexist within the same contested territory.

 

Apparently, the closing line of his talk was enough to agitate Zionist militants, which led CNN immediately to dismiss Hill: “free Palestine, from the river to the sea.” It remains murky, and probably will remain so, whether tearing this phrase from the clear intention of the talk was a convenient pretext for outside forces to mount their attack on Hill. The alternative view is that this singled phrase was all that was read by those who indignantly ranted about an anti-Semitic screed delivered at the UN. I am reminded of my own experience two years ago when my co-authored UN report was viciously denounced with no indication of it having been read beyond the title that contained the word ‘apartheid.’ This was enough of a red flag to make the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, adopt a hysterical tone when asserting her arrogant demand that the UN denounce the report, which as with CNN was dutifully done.

 

As Hill himself explained in a column published in the Philadelphia Inquirer [Dec. 1, 2018]: “Critics of this phrase have suggested that I was calling for violence against Jewish people. In all honesty, I was stunned, and saddened, that this was the response.” As Hill points out both Israelis and Palestinians have used that phrase over the years to describe their intentions, including for various proposals of co-existence, especially either the two-state Oslo goal line or the secular binational democratic one-state vision that Hill and many of us favor. To consider such a sentiment to be an anti-Semitic trope is a Zionist slur against someone whose life and scholarly work has been dedicated to social justice and in opposition to all forms of ethnic hatred and intolerance. Given the recent troubles of Angela Davis and Alice Walker it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that African Americans are especially targeted if perceived by Zionist gatekeepers as overtly pro-Palestinian, and somehow vulnerable to being discrediting. The racist message being delivered: ‘Stay in your racist lane, or else!”

 

Of course, I am not suggesting that white critics of Israel, if seen as vulnerable, are not targeted for punitive treatment as was the unjustified treatment of Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Salaita, Rahab Abdel Hadi, and many others illustrate. It is rather a matter of blocking African American supporters of Palestinian solidarity because they can speak with a special authenticity about ethnic victimization. In this regard, it is hardly accidental that post-apartheid South Africa is of all governments in the world the one most supportive of the Palestinian national struggle.

 

Surely, a rather grotesque irony is present. These African American cultural and intellectual leading personalities are being implicitly instructed to limit their concerns and activism to their own  grievances associated with the treatment of African American. The abuse of Palestinians, in effect, is none of their business. The message to Jews is somewhat analogous, although interestingly different. If as a Jew you speak too candidly in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle you are not only an anti-Semite, but likely to be labeled ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Here the embedded assumption is that to be authentically Jewish is to remain silent when it comes to Israeli crimes of abuse inflicted on the Palestinian people.  

As Michelle Alexander reminded us in her breakthrough column, Martin Luther King, Jr., was widely perceived as ‘brave’ when he spoke out against the Vietnam War in his famous speech of April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church. It was not a provocation by that stage in the war for white liberals to be publicly opposed to the Vietnam War, and certainly would not be an occasion for the appropriate use of words like ‘brave’ or ‘courageous.’ But for an African American to do so back then was existentially different. It was treated as tactically questionable and even impudent for a black man to act as if fully enfranchised and had the same right as white persons to be a citizen of conscience when it came to issues outside the domain of race. The chastening reality that King was assassinated in the following year, which either intentionally or not served as a reminder that black folks, however distinguished and acknowledged, will be punished it they dare act as if they enjoy the same spectrum of universal rights as the rest of us.

 

For King to so enter the main lane of political controversy on Vietnam was to cast himself as an uppity black who offended even some mentally colonized African American leaders who at the time lamented, or at least regretted, this supposed distraction from fighting for civil rights in America. The message delivered by dog whistle to many liberals, black and white, was ‘let others worry about the Vietnamese people and American militarism. This is none of your business. Stick to race.” A deeper irony here is that part of the reason that the Vietnamese prevailed in the war against all odds is partly because they derived strength from expressing solidarity with other liberation struggles and seeking as much support from non-Vietnamese peace oriented groups as possible.

 

We can take note of this subtle form of liberal racism as long pervading American political culture. To observe it so crudely resurfacing in relation to this dismissal of Hill by CNN suggests that despite liberal claims, little progress has been made in dissolving the structures of what might be called ‘deep racism.’ What is more for Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon to remain silent in the face of the Hill dismissal exposes two lamentable features of how this ‘most trusted name in news’ operates: first, it bows to Zionist pressures to enforce the insidious expanded definition of anti-Semitism is itself malicious. CNN went even further, as Hill’s talk fairly read was actually supportive of the existence of Israel, the wellbeing of Jews in Israel, and explicitly repudiated anti-Semitism as properly understood. CNN’s reflex reaction called for apology not dismissal. Thus, what CNN did fell even outside the contours of the recent Zionist insistence on an inflammatory definition of anti-Semitism’ as extended to Israel as well as to Jews. Further, these lead news journalists, who nightly claim to walk the high moral ground, have maintained their public silence in the face of this crippling encroachment on freedom of expression resulting from the dismissal of Hill. Surely, an instance of self-censorship run amok.

 

Make no mistake, what befell Marc Lamont Hill also serves as a warning to CNN to stay within the confines of its lane as lead propagandist of the bipartisan consensus. It is also a reminder to the rest of us that trusting CNN’s public face is a fool’s errand. The wider effect of Hill’s experience is to send an intimidating warning to anyone in the African American community that they better watch their words or they should expect, at the very least, to receive a rhetorical lynching.

 

The Hill case shows this to be hardly alarmist. The warning was gratuitously reinforced by the response of Hill’s academic employer. Instead of doing the right thing, giving a fair reading to the UN speech, and then supporting their faculty member, Hill was verbally lynched by the president and chair of the board at Temple University in the harshest imaginable language. In the public press there were calls for dismissal from his tenured position. For what? Speaking out on a controversial issue at a UN conference in a manner completely in harmony with human rights and global justice.

 

Even now, anyone who cherishes the democratic spirit should insist that CNN reinstate Hill with an accompanying apology for the considerable damage done to his reputation and the psychic anguish inflicted. Also, I would hope that the academic senate at Temple, or some similar body does not imitate CNN by maintaining a stony silence. Even after the fact it would send a different message if the university community summoned the political will and commitment to academic freedom to censure their administrators for their outrageous remarks of condemnation directed at Hill, and along the way chide CNN for caving in, and then refusing to make amends. Hill deserves nothing less, and if this kind of punitive behavior is not repudiated by his university community it sends a chilling and obnoxious message—defamation works as a means to discredit Israeli critics, especially if African American, and the media and universities should blacklist such troublesome characters if they seek smooth sailing.

 

 

 

Toward Geopolitical Disengagement: Uncertain yet Desirable

13 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The post below was published in Middle East Eye on 30 December 2018, and is here reproduced with some modification. Humility in assessment is necessary as what we see tends to be partial and incomplete. Radical uncertainty is the appropriate interpretative outlook, which means that the future could break either bad or good. For a region that has endured so much suffering and abuse, I offer fervent wishes that we will be surprised by hopeful developments during coming months. Altready the shakeup of regional politics and perceptions due to the Trump withdrawal move is ambiguous in its implications, but seemingly leading in the positive direction of U.S. political disengagement, and an end to the delusions of being ‘a force for good.’

 

 

Toward Geopolitical Disengagement: Uncertain yet Desirable

 

Ever since the World War I travesties of Sykes/Picot and the Balfour Declaration, the Middle East has been the scene of geopolitical rivalries and unfolding nationalist narratives that veered uneasily between extremes of tyranny and chaos. A second post-Ottoman milestone was crossed in 1956 when the United States displaced its main European allies, the UK and France as the principal manager of Western interests in the region, which at the time centered on the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union, safeguarding Western access to Gulf oil and trade routes, and sustaining Israeli security. A further phase emerged after the ending of Cold War geopolitical bipolarity. This was soon followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which supplied the pretext for a series of disastrous interventions in the name of counterterrorism.

 

Post-colonial Turmoil

 

Then came the uprisings of 2011 consisting of a series of popular movements displacing several authoritarian regimes, followed by an array of foreign interventions, proxy wars, prolonged strife, and massive civilian suffering throughout the region. One result of these anti-authoritarian uprisings has been a surge of counterrevolutionary violence and intensified repressive tendencies. Beyond this, U.S./Saudi/Israeli extreme hostility toward Iran has threatened for years to explode into a regional war of great ferocity.

 

Into this maelstrom of violence and disorder, the ascent of Trump to U.S. leadership two years ago seemed a huge dump of oil on these already raging fires in the Arab world. Such apprehensions were quickly realized: giving the green light to the Saudi/UAE ultimatum directed at Qatar, going all out to help Israel impose an apartheid state on the Palestinian people, and building a war mongering alliance with Riyadh and Tel Aviv to produce some sort of final showdown with Iran. And worst of all, remaining complicit in the Saudi intervention in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe that has pushed over 17 millions Yemenis to the brink of starvation.

 

 

Syrian Withdrawal

 

As the world has learned, often painfully, Trump is the least predictable  and most irresponsible political figure ever to govern in the United States. On the home front, his policies have been ideologically coherent, leaning far to the right on such varied matters as immigration, trade, taxes, law enforcement policies, and respect for constitutional guidelines. On foreign policy, there has been Trumpist bluster and erratic behavior, but nothing very disruptive other than perhaps the Jerusalem embassy move, that is, until the sudden announcement of the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria a few days ago, to be followed by reducing by 50% the combat presence of American forces in Afghanistan.

 

This Syrian move has shaken the national security establishment in Washington, and supposedly further undermined confidence in America’s global role among NATO allies and, above all, upset Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this case, Trump overrode the unanimous advice of his hawkish advisors and ministers, failed to consult with allies, and justified the withdrawal by misleadingly claiming the defeat of ISIS.  The magnitude of the government crisis was signaled by the announced resignation of General Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and underscored by his letter condemning the president’s approach in all but name. This letter of resignation was immediately treated as scripture by Democrats, as well by such stalwarts of liberalism as CNN and the NY Times. It even led several Republicans to at last step forward to denounce Trump’s new Syria policy, contending that it betrays the Kurds, rewards the Russians and the Assad regime, and is red meat for the undefeated ISIS legions.

 

Assuming that Trump does not pull the rug out from under his own initiative, it certainly merits deserve a more balanced consideration, and quite likely a favorable assessment. The American military presence in Syria was always problematic, too modest to be a game changer, but significant enough to prolong the Syrian agony. With respect to ISIS, it may not be defeated, but the main players in Syria at this point—the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran all have strong immediate incentives to carry the fight against ISIS to a successful conclusion. We cannot know what Turkey will do with respect to the Kurds operating close to its border in northern Syria and supposedly linked to the armed struggle movement of the PKK centered in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq. We can hope that Erdogan gave Trump some assurances when they talked of foregoing an escalation of anti-Kurdish military efforts and the Syrian Kurds and their allies among the Turkish Kurds will on their side explore deescalating options.

What we can be encouraged by, especially if account is also taken of the withdrawal of half of the American combat contingents in Afghanistan, announced just one day later, is that Trump seems to be giving substance to his long deferred campaign promise to end foreign interventions and give emphasis to restoring the quality of life in the United States. If this is indeed the case then it is bad news for the Saudi and Israeli hawks. They expected Trump to lead this most unholy of alliances to the gates of Tehran, maybe not by military means, but at least by intensified forms of coercive diplomacy and a variety of destabilizing tactics. Trump has deservedly earned a reputation for habitual inconsistency, or for staying the course once a policy comes under fire. At least for the moment, it would seem that the Syrian withdrawal, even if slowed down by deep state pushback, is best understood as part of a larger political disengagement from failed military adventures in distant countries at great cost and almost no political results. If this happens, it will be a major defeat for the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that promoted U.S. global militarism ever since the end of World War II as the twin sibling of neoliberal globalization.

 

All and all, what emerges is certainly not a pretty picture yet there are grounds to be more positive than the strongly negative reactions of the political elites in America and Western Europe. The disavowing of foreign military intervention by the United States is long overdue, given the record of political failure and the trail of suffering left behind. Yet more important, and undoubtedly not part of any coherent revision of grand strategy by Trump, is the possibility that a reduced political engagement by the United States in the Middle East will encourage regional moves toward moderation, self-determination, and co-existence. Such disengagement would allow the realities of a post-colonial Middle East to break freer of the shackles of geopolitics. Even the Israeli leadership might feel encouraged over time to reconsider their approach to the Palestinian national movement, and shift their focus from seeking an apartheid victory to envisioning a political compromise that presupposes the true equality of both peoples with a single secular democratic state.

 

The context of the Syrian withdrawal is also consistent with the drift of several recent regional developments. First of all, the grotesque murder of Kamal Khoshoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has made it less feasible than before to join hands with the leadership in Riyadh, and solidify the anti-Iran alliance with Israel and the United States. As well, the dreadful Saudi  intervention in Yemen, undertaken with American support, has already caused massive suffering, and threatens to produce what is already being called the worst famine in the last hundred years. Moves at a Stockholm Conference of the parties agreed on the establishment of a UN presence to open the main Yemeni port at Hudaydah, handling 80% of food imports. If this initiative holds it would be a hopeful step back from the brink of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. If this de-escalation gains momentum it would  likely reinforce the sense of geopolitical disengagement that is now associated with removing American troops from Syria, but might also encourage ending US complicity in the Yemen War.

 

These conjectures about a possibly better future for the Middle East in 2019 are beset by profound uncertainties. Aside from Trump further giving way to militarist counter-pressures, there is the possibility that he has at last crossed the red line of reluctant acceptance by the Republican Party facing its own lose/lose future. Such a dilemma could translate into a determined effort to force Trump from presidential power one way or another. He would then be replaced by the current vice president, Mike Pence, seemingly an ideological colleague on the home front, but unlikely to buck the national security establishment on its core global posture, namely, an unshakable belief in the benevolence and efficacy of American military power. Pence would be freed to produce a foreign policy that was both independent of Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency and not twisted to such an extent to satisfy Israel’s ambitions.

 

There are also disturbing alternative futures for the Middle East in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal. These include a surge of ISIS terrorist attacks in Europe and North America, a bloodbath in Syria as Damascus consolidates its victory in the civil war, and a major Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. None of these developments can be ruled out, and if occurring, would alter for the worse what we can reasonably hope for in the region as 2019 unfolds.

 

Yet for the first time in the 21stCentury it is possible to envision positive developments in the region as reducing the level of violence and turbulence. Even if these moderating developments occur, the situation throughout the region still has a long way to go to achieve peace, stability,

humane governance, and justice.

 

As well, prospects are bleaker than ever for a sustainable peace for Israel and Palestine. Hardliners are in firm control in Israel, with a seeming resolve to carry the Zionist project in its most expansive form to a victorious finish. Although such an outcome is implausible, what is likely is a hardening of the apartheid structures oppressing the Palestinian people as a whole and an even more embittered resistance and increasingly militant global solidarity movement.