Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Syria and the End of the Left
The Anglo-American left - at least that portion of the left concerned with foreign affairs - has consistently backed Assad. At one extreme, this is explicit and based on the acceptance of an alternate-universe sort of news flow. At the other end of the spectrum, there are pro-forma condemnations of Assad coupled with calls for 'patient negotiations,' or condemnations of ' Western meddling', or just a throwing up of hands, like Chomsky's "I don't know."(*) It hardly matters which of these responses predominates. If heeded, they can only benefit the régime, and everyone knows it.
Does anyone who counts for anything listen to the left? It's possible. For one thing, however modest the left's more obvious victories, it's had extensive indirect and diffuse influence - witness the rise of 'political correctness', which originated in 1960s leftism. For another, the left may have influence on Western policy because - as was the case with 'political correctness'- it's pushing at a partly open door. The West is too frightened to act on Syria; it looks for reasons not to. The left's incessant calls for inaction and disengagement have gained audience by their inclusion in papers/websites such as The Guardian, which has attained virtual mainstream status. Perhaps this gets the attention of decision-makers, or those who have real influence with the decision-makers. So the left might modestly congratulate itself on helping Assad survive a bit longer.
It is hard to imagine a more clearly mistaken and less excusable stance. Mistaken, because the facts on Syria are cloudy only to those who want them to be. And even those who supported, say, the Stalin trials, had more excuse, because they had more reason to be mistaken and later, to plead ignorance. How did this happen? The causes lie in an ideology which fostered obliviousness to change.
The bad-person ideology
At the heart of Chomsky-style anti-imperialism is the judgement that America has a bad character. It is selfish, mean and - apparently worst of all, from the thousands of articles devoted to the topic - hypocritical. This claim is supported by surveying most or all of American history and finding a pattern of selfishness, covetousness, brutality, hypocrisy and other vices.
Philosophers can defend the idea of abstract entities such as America, and you could devise some coherent notion of what it is for those entities of have a character. Is America a specially immoral abstract entity, as opposed to all the other nations? Perhaps Chomsky cherry-picks a bit - America has done some good things, like abolishing slavery, instituting some civil liberties, fighting Hitler, and so on. But even if he's perfectly correct, theories about the character of abstract entities are not an adequate basis for politics. For one thing, you don't support or not support political agents just because they're of good or bad character. You have to look at the actual effects of supporting them. For another, politics depends crucially not only on what stays the same - on the enduring features of an abstract entity, for instance - but also on what changes.
Obama, for instance, is not Jack Kennedy, the son of a bitch who invaded Cuba and pushed the Vietnam War into the criminal slaughter it became. And other things have changed too. America does not, as in days of yore, want to plunder the world for resources. What would it do with them? It doesn't manufacture any more and - this is much too recent and fundamental a change for the left to process - it doesn't have to worry about oil supplies any more. It doesn't need an empire or 'hegemony', because there are now numerous independent and vile régimes with whom it maintains a mutually beneficial relationship. Even more important, America has lost too many wars. Some say this started with Korea. Certainly Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, and Afghanistan will be the same. In Iraq, the US never achieved effective control of the territory: if the situation in Germany circa 1946 or later had been anything like the situation in Iraq, ever, Truman or Ike would have sacked the entire general staff. So that, even in narrow military terms, counts as a defeat as well.
As a result of all this, America is weak, both in relative and in absolute terms. It has been pretty consistently unable to impose its will despite its best efforts. It's timid, too. It doesn't want to extend its global reach. Even to maintain its position, it puts it faith in others' armed forces, with almost comical results in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wants the UN and NATO to take over so America doesn't keep getting defeated in its farcical adventures. Since this isn't going to happen, it doesn't know what to do.
Bad-person ideologues have a hard time acknowledging this because, for them, it isn't enough for America to be bad. It has to be importantly bad, and therefore very powerful; only this can justify the good old routine of condemning America to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. The stubborn commitment to America as a juggernaut has an unpleasant yet typically American side effect: the rest of the world is virtually deprived of agency. That's why, for bad-person ideologues, 9/11 was a mere crime, a police matter, not a major assault on US power. And that's why, to the left, America's victims seem tiny, helpless, hardly human. How, after all, could these little people stand up to America? This stealth-chauvinism naturally distorts the analysis of events like the Syrian or Libyan uprisings which, because applauded by the US, are seen as mere pawns in an American game.
These distortions may divorce the bad-person ideology from political reality, but they don't raise doubts among its adherents. After all, their moral beliefs are unaffected, and are likely to remain so. America is and will continue to be bad. That's because states, generally speaking, are indeed of bad moral character. Countries generally pursue their own interests, often at the expense of the world's poor and oppressed, often as part of their national democratic mandate. Yet they pretend to do otherwise, so they're hypocritical. As long as this doesn't change - and it won't - bad-person ideologues can keep preaching with minimal regard for the course of history.
What would it take to expose the weakness of the bad-person ideology? recognition that being a morally bad country doesn't preclude being on the morally right side of things. Bad countries can pursue good policies, just as bad people can do good deeds. Until recently, this wasn't happening: the US was pretty consistently on the wrong side of any conflict. But what about Syria? The US, ineffectually as usual, sides with the Syrian revolution. Because the US is for it, and the US is bad, the left is against it. Rather than abandon its obsession with bad character, it sides with atrocity. Since, of course, it can't admit this, it does what all bankrupt ideologues do: it denies reality. It can persist in this denial because, once more oblivious to change, it doesn't realize it's lost one of its main assets: access to secret or suppressed information.
Once, the left had such access. It exposed atrocities in the American South, in Vietnam, in Chile, in Palestine and many other places. Indeed this was probably the chief immediate and concrete accomplishment of the left. Today - at most in the past couple of years - things have changed. The left no longer has special access, and has moved from sources no one else had, to sources no one else wants.
This has very little to do with social media; it has much to do with the brand-new ubiquity of smart phones and camera phones. We're flooded with data from everywhere. Yes, some of that is fake, but here too, the left doesn't get it. For one thing, most of the material is video. It can be faked or misrepresented, but it's a much tougher proposition than faking a single image - and by now there are well over 100,000 mutually reinforcing videos presenting the opposition case.(**) For another, online activity doesn't just repackage data as truth; it analyses it. Every day, even the videos favorable to the Syrian opposition are examined for forgery by the Syrian opposition. And because journalists now get most of their information from online sources, they too participate in the vetting process. It's not perfect, but when a conflict produces literally hundreds of thousands of videos, it's accurate enough: so far, no important falsehood is known to have survived online examination for more than a few hours.
The left protects itself from dealing with this change by ratcheting up selective scepticism. "It's all faked!" This level of suspicion, oddly enough, never extends to pro-Assad reports, just as it never extends to pro-Qaddafi reports. If the left applied to Israel the childishly distorted standards of evidence it applies to Syria, the Israelis could claim with impunity that they've never harmed a hair on any Palestinian's head.
Bereft of genuinely special information, the left has made a fool of itself. It has turned to beyond-the-fringe 'experts' like Michel Chossudovsky, whose Global Research site offers 'anti-imperialists' new levels of delusion. When, for example, the Syrian and Turkish governments agreed that Syria had fired shells across the Turkish border, Chossudovsky ran a piece citing "widespread speculation that the one Syrian mortar that killed five Turkish civilians well might have been fired by Turkish-backed opposition forces intent on giving Turkey a pretext to move militarily, in military intelligence jargon, a ‘false flag’ operation." The footnote is to a Reuters piece which, being sane, says nothing of the kind.
It is difficult to know how much of this fringe material is offered in good faith. No doubt some of the bad ideologues realize that the Syrian revolution is not a great-power plot allied with a fundamentalist rampage, but want to oppose the US for supposed geopolitical reasons. In other words, the less deluded part of the left apparently believes it is engaging in Realpolitik: let the Syrians bleed because, though Assad is a bad person, he is the enemy of a worse person, America, and therefore our friend.
This is an infantile sort of realism. When Bismark instituted a welfare system to co-opt the socialists, when Stalin allied with Hitler and when the West later allied with Stalin, that was Realpolitik. Supporting Assad is not. It lacks one essential ingredient of any 'Politik' - an objective.
For the left's 'Realpolitik' to have an objective, keeping Assad in power would have to be good for something. It can't be. Assad, win or lose, is a spent force. The most he can ever do is fight and repress an opposition which will never cease to struggle for its very survival. Even if they were all wiped out, there would be hundreds of thousands seething with anger and looking for any opportunity for revenge. Assad's atrocities are not the sort of thing forgiven or forgotten. That covert rage was essentially the reaction to Hafez Assad's repression of the 1982 Hama revolt; a much broader and deeper reaction is all that could be expected today. Nor will the régime be able to buy its way towards reconciliation: if Assad wins, his economy will be choked by sanctions and trade disruptions. No one can rationally expect him to be any good to anyone - not Iran, not Russia or China, not Hezbollah, not the Palestinians, not any great cause. So there is nothing to 'anti-imperialist' support for Assad, and opposition to toppling him, but spite and resentment, nothing but bitterness towards the Morally Bad Person, the West, or the US. That's not politics, that's sulking.
The Syrian revolution is a political watershed. Never have the facts - for those willing to look - been so clear. No amount of scare-mongering can offer reasons to favor the régime. If Assad wins, unending atrocities are certain. If the FSA wins, the future may turn out to be anything from as bad to much better: no one has offered scenarios that look worse, and it seems as if only the more optimistic possibilities are discounted. The certainty of Assad's horrors cannot be preferred to the uncertainties of his overthrow.
Of course contemporary leftists are far from the only ones to have chosen brutality over humanity. But they are perhaps the first to make that choice quite so pointlessly and in the face of such undeniable realities. Their decision is driven by hard-hearted petulance and the conviction that their aimless, obsolete moralizing somehow exempts them from common decency. These are reasons that do not even rise to the level of intelligent cynicism.
Syrians say they will never forgive this. Neither should anyone else. If there is to be a left that can be mentioned without disgust, it will emerge only when the existing 'anti-imperialist' left is thoroughly dismissed. It is in that sense that we witness the end of the left.
(*) Allegedly his response to a question on Syria at a talk in Cairo, October 2012. After a year and a half, he doesn't know? Hard to imagine clearer evidence of ideological paralysis.
(**) "Anyone can make a fake video and post it just as anyone can send a fake picture to the BBC, but over a hundred thousand videos of the struggle in Syria have been posted to YouTube in that last year and they make up a very convincing record that can not be faked." - Daily Kos: Fake Houla Massacre Photo: Was the BBC set up? See also Jess Hill on "Assad's Useful Idiots".