Category Archives: Music

“Who Cares? It’s Only Chomsky” (Left Edition)

What with all the hosannas pouring in for Chomsky upon the announcement of his impending move to from MIT to the University of Arizona, Tucson, it’s worth pointing out, for the umpteenth time, that many of these derive from those who have repeatedly expressed complete contempt for his views.

To take two recent examples, Chomsky’s endorsement of a lesser-evil vote was greeted with an outpouring of hostility, and to this day will provoke the charge that he was a “despicable hack” for the Democratic Party, as one of them put it at the time. Another was his support for the Sanders candidacy and its subsequent post-electoral mobilization. This was also greeted with the usual snickers at the doddering fool who can’t recognize the obvious fact that this was only the latest “sheepdog” deployed to herd the left into the graveyard for left movements which is the Democratic Party. 

Finally, Chomsky’s recent criticism of self-described “antifacists” advocating the initiation of violent confrontations with the right brought forth this charming Facebook rejoinder from a character named Sebastian Budgen.

“Maybe we should simply snigger at ‘postmodernism’ and explain the facts of US foreign policy to the Nazis? That will surely change their minds…”

A commenter on the threat attempted to argue by reasserting Chomsky’s position that advocating “street brawls *is* the answer to their prayers.” He then went on to note that “even arguing that this is dumbassery even from a purely strategic point of view is practically the same as singing ‘sing heil’. Fucking hegelianism and its resilience… Street brawls will not push faster into the new “stage” in history; it is merely going to get people killed and guarantee that right-wing extremism grows.”

Presumably this position was so idiotic that it merited nothing but contempt. “Fuck off” was Budgen’s response.

It’s worth mentioning that Budgen is by no means marginal: he is a senior editor at Verso, perhaps the left’s pre-eminent publishing house. He is also a contributing editor at Jacobin where it can be assumed he exerts significant influence. In this connection it should be noted that Jacobin, while routinely rolling out Chomsky’s endorsement for fund raising purposes, conspicuously failed to publish a piece by Chomsky advocating for the lesser evil position during the run up to the election.

Their view that “the left was under no obligation” to defeat Trump was unopposed and was reflected by and probably influenced much of its readership. The likely consequence  was the tragedy we will be living with every day for the next three years if not longer-assuming we survive that long. (Chomsky, in fact, also believes this to be the case: in fact, he predicted this result in June of last year.)

I suppose the bottom line of this is while the left is sure to issue pro forma hosannas on occasions like this, there is a huge amount of contempt for his stated views.

In my opinion, we would be better off if the situation was reversed.

Alas, it was not to be . . . (Climate and Capitalism)

Today’s Times reports on the development of alternative energy resources in Chile which are said to put it “on track to rely on clean sources for 90 percent of its electricity needs by 2050, up from the current 45 percent. ”

The word “bittersweet” is entirely insufficient to describe the emotions evoked by articles like this, though it strikes me as the best we have. That’s to say that during the next half century we will see a significant move to renewable energy sources, and this will occur, contrary to what Naomi Klein predicted, within the neoliberal capitalist order which has been dominant since the early 80s.

Of course, as Klein would immediately-and correctly-respond, it will be in no way sufficient to prevent massive, almost unthinkable destruction between now and then: hundreds of millions of refugees from Southeast Asia inundated by floods, hundreds of millions more from destruction of formerly productive agricultural regions, hundreds of millions more fleeing from temperatures which simply can’t support human habitation.

So yes, capitalism has responded. But far too little and far too late. Had a decent economic order emerged, one which allowed for some degree of centralized economic planning based on the needs of the population rather than the corporations, the survival of a large fraction of the species could have been secured.

Alas, it was not to be.

Musical Deplorables: Notes on Neoliberalism, Jazz Purism and Kenny G.

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

***

Before revealing the source of these descriptions, it is worth pointing out what should be obvious, namely that, with a few substitutions, the passage could have occurred in any number of alarmed New York Times, or Washington Post op-eds in the months and weeks before the election, one of which mirrored the concluding phrase above in bearing the headline “We Ignore Trump at our Peril.” In fact, they could have emanated from the Democratic nominee herself who described her opponent as “the most dangerous candidate in history”, his supporters, notoriously, an “irredeemable basket of deplorables” impelled by a “negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision.”

To answer the question left hanging, we owe the enumeration of the “dangers” of Kenny G. to guitarist Pat Metheny in a blog posting from some years back, one which is routinely resurrected and brandished as a club when a new round of Kenny’s G. bashing is initiated as it was last month.

What makes those forwarding this document conspicuous is not just the high dudgeon, but their self-righteousness. The latter is evidently grounded in their certainty that Metheny’s critique transcends subjective opinion in being based on objective music/theoretical fact. Thus, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodlings” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.

****

It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure-why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do, and what any minimally honest practitioner of the discipline will immediate concede that it can’t, is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground explored, most notably, in Joseph Kerman’s classic (1980) essay “How We Got into Analysis and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence of certain triumphalist variants of music theory which, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure). The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely, canonic masterworks deriving from white, European, males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

A slightly more subtle issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as G’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved dissonance. Here the problem is that the supposedly objective data is contested with even the most unambiguously tonal works many of which present numerous puzzles to the most sophisticated analysts. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches are, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong”, but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention or Chopin Prelude there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for pre-existing aesthetic bias.

Finally, the problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes”, insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so”, an appeal to bien pensant consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon.

****

At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny.

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

The key to answering the question involves recognizing that both, as I have pointed out, are reflections of deep-seated conventional wisdom as this is expressed by the agenda setting media, the academy and by the priorities of corporate philanthropy. Challenges to its authority, whether this takes the form of enthusiasm for the debased artistic expression of Kenny G or the debased politics of Donald Trump are viewed as heresy. More broadly, those challenging orthodoxies on free trade, permanent war or banking deregulation, were relegated to the margins just as those raising doubts about the sanctified status of jazz, as I myself discovered when I did just that in the piece linked to above. All that’s needed to dispense with them is to cut and paste from a well worn-lexicon of denunciations-“irresponsible”, “dangerous”, “uninformed” etc.-while appealing to the authority of acknowledged experts in their representation of what are claimed to be “the facts”.

*****

By now it is uncontroversial to identify the election of 2016 as a delegitimation crisis for this same expert class-the moment when “the twilight of the elites” turned to midnight. The public would vote based on the evidence provided by their own eyes making clear their contempt for the fairy tales of those who they regarded as frauds and mountebanks.

The unemployed steel worker working for near minimum wage at a 7/11 in a town ravaged by drug addiction, his home, and those of his neighbors, foreclosed on by banks stuffed with trillions of taxpayer dollars, now demanded that elite talking heads stop talking and begin to listen, as they have not for three decades. The Trump election was the two by four administered to the head of the neoliberal mule to get its attention. Reasoning with it, as the joke goes, which is to say development of actual progressive legislation responding to the immense suffering apparent everywhere will need to come later: after the catastrophe of the Trump/Pence administration is brought to an end.

It is at this point that the analogy between the admirers of Kenny G and Trump breaks down: I know of no instance where Kenny G’s fans have lashed out against at those who routinely make punching bags of them for the crime of enjoying simple bluesy tunes in high gloss professional arrangements. Rather they vote with their feet filling stadiums or opening their wallets when they are requested by him to throw a few bucks in a hat for a charity.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t harbor plenty of simmering resentment towards those ridiculing them for their coarse and degraded musical tastes while patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity and refinement. The value of these and other purely cultural antipathies have, for years, been recognized by right organizers such as Grover Norquist whose electoral strategy, as he recently revealed, relies crucially on “changing the tone . . . towards bitter nastiness.”

That our own attitudes help pave the way for this tone to be established and thereby the success of the right raises a fundamental question for those of us whose lives have revolved around a passionate investment in forms of musical high culture, however we define it. How do we respond to artistic tastes which seem to represent an affront to our cherished aesthetic values, just as much as support for Trump seems to represent an attack on our core political and moral sensibilities.

How we resolve this is an individual matter, but one guideline should be clear: While we should make clear that while we regard their views as misguided, maybe even profoundly so, we harbor no ill will towards Trump supporters as individuals.

When it comes to those with an affection for Kenny G or any other artist for whom visceral contempt seems de rigueur it would seem that more is required of us. Namely, we need to take a step beyond tolerance by applying the kindergarten adage to either say something nice or nothing at all about the music people like, the cars they drive or the foods they eat. Doing so won’t by itself prevent a repetition of the electoral disaster of 2016 or install socialists at the helm of state power. But if we can our curb our reflexive pleasure in lampooning the bad taste of others, it will make it the longstanding project of the right to construct walls which divide us that much harder. And in so doing, we make our job to build bridges connecting us that much easier.

**

(1) See my widely derided Jazz After Politics for arguments along these lines.

(2) Oddly, Metheny claims Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as embodying the supposed virtues of jazz under attack from the debased idiom of Kenny G.

Michael Hudson: Trump is “Hilarious”

In conversation with him a few weeks ago, Noam Chomsky predicted 1) that it was quite likely that we would have a Trump presidency and 2) “the left” would play a small but significant role in making it happen.

If it does materialize, these remarks from economist Michael Hudson will be seen as indicative of the kinds of attitudes which were decisive in bringing it about.

“So this is really the class war. And it’s the class war of Wall Street and the corporate sector of the Democratic side against Trump on the populist side. And who knows whether he really means what he says when he says he’s for the workers and he wants to rebuild the cities, put labor back to work. And when he says he’s for the blacks and Hispanics have to get jobs just like white people, maybe he’s telling the truth, because that certainly is the way that the country can be rebuilt in a positive way.”

Hudson forgot to mention that Trump will make the trains run on time. Also his commitment to “safeguard(ing) the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood, the freedom and independence of the fatherland, so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.” (Irony impaired individuals are requested to please click here.)

Given this likelihood, it’s reasonable to start thinking about the kinds of challenges we will face under a Trump administration in continuing to build the left insurgency which the Sanders campaign provided the foundation for.

But I won’t have anything to say about these except to note that they will almost certainly be extreme.

Rather, the point I want to make is that many of those who take Hudson’s line won’t care.  That’s because they were hostile to the Sanders campaign from the beginning  loudly demanding that the left refuse to support it in any way.

So it stands to reason that they would welcome a Trump administration as it would constitute an obstacle to the post Sanders mobilization getting its footing.  The most deluded of them see its failure as clearing the field for the eventual triumph of their own preferred sect, whether it is the Greens, the ISO or some other equally obscure post-Marxist formation.

It hardly needs to be mentioned that if hell does freeze over, and some ultra left forces manage to become even marginally effective, Trump will very quickly crush them with as much force as he will apply to remnants of the Sanders’s campaign.

But given that their contact with reality is at best sporadic and at worst non-existent, the ultra-left can blissfully inhabit a fantasy world where Sanders’s loss is their gain.

And they can join Hudson in reveling in a Trump victory along with  “a reversal of the traditional Republican fiscal responsibility austerity policy. . . (a) policy to employ American labor and put it back to work on infrastructure. . . .  to reinstate Glass-Steagall, whereas the Clintons were the people that got rid of it. And he can now fight for the population fighting against Wall Street, just as he’s been able to stiff the banks.”

For Hudson and his lunatic followers (which now includes McKinsey alumna Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog), it will be “almost hilarious to see what happens.”

Hilarious indeed.

Adolph Reed on Why Sanders Matters

(From Reed’s appearance on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News, 9/7/16)

“One of the things that appealed to some of us in the Sanders campaign was that it seemed to have the potential of being a boost for a political movement undertaking. And it has been and it is. But the problem is that the reason why there would be a need for a boost like that is that progressive forces are-I wouldn’t say they are in disarray-but they don’t count for very much and they don’t have very clear critiques and they keep doing the same things over and over again. And those tendencies-the tendency to pronounce the existence of a coalition of all of the other feckless and empty entities of the other progressive coalitions that have been called together over the last 20 years and have foundered on, is an emphasis that has got to be challenged and criticized and, maybe organized around and underneath as we go forward.”

Not Meriting a Response

Vincent Kelley’s attempt to “unveil the unstated premises and class perspective of (Chomsky’s and my) argument” does nothing of the kind.  Rather, it mainly succeeds in revealing Kelley’s inability to understand basic English and to apply elementary logic.  The following are four indications.

1) Kelley attributes to us “an implicit claim to have a clear picture of life under a Trump presidency” and that it “will drastically increase human suffering as a result of Trump’s reactionary policies.”

Nowhere do we claim to have “a clear picture”.  What we suggest is that there is a reasonable basis for concluding that a Trump presidency will inflict significantly more harm on the most vulnerable constituencies than will a Clinton presidency.  We base this tentative conclusion on Trump’s numerous statements many of which are either explicitly racist or contain coded racist appeals, his commitment to violently reactionary policies such as banning Muslims, and his promotion of vigilante mob violence as he has repeatedly done, egging his supporters on to commit racist hate crimes.  These do not point to a “clear picture” but to a serious danger to those groups most likely to be effected, a conclusion which 94% of African Americans who strongly disapprove of Trump appear to agree with but which certain “benighted elements” of the ultra left insist on ignoring.

They also ignore apocalyptic conditions resulting from climate change denialism endorsed by Trump and the Republican caucus, these existing not in some speculative future but in the present, with hundreds of millions in Bangladesh now beginning to flee the coastal plains due to sea level rise as well as 300 million Indians lacking water from an historically unprecedented drought. It is a scandal that it is left to the corporate media, most notably the New York Times to describe and explain these conditions while performative leftists like Kelley, besotted with the supposed “anti-capitalist” rhetoric of Trump, avert their eyes to the suffering.

2) Furthermore, it is not us but Kelley who claims to have “a clear picture” of the future.  Specifically, he claims that in answering the question “is capitalism worth keeping alive? For Chomsky and Halle, the answer will always be an implicit ‘yes’ because the moment will never be quite right for revolution.”

Unlike our perspective on the Trump presidency, Kelley expresses not the likelihood, but the certainty that we “will” be joining the forces of reaction in opposition to “the revolution”.  More significantly, he fails to provide the slightest basis for his conclusion:  He cites no statements either of us has made which provide any indication of counter-revolutionary sympathies or any degree of confidence or tolerance of the capitalist system.  The reason he does not do so is that he can’t.  Indeed, a key rationale for our proposal is the recognition that a Clinton presidency will make principled, as opposed to opportunistic, opposition to neoliberalism the focus of protest.  In contrast, as we specifically note in the piece, protests of Trump will take for granted a solution inhering in electing the next in a succession of centrist, corporate Democrats. Those like Kelley welcoming a Trump presidency make it more likely that neoliberal capital will continue its lock on institutional power thereby effectively answering “yes” to the question of “is capitalism worth keeping alive”.

3) A third misreading is contained in Kelley’s suggestion that we “obscure the fact that (our) fundamental moral adherence to lesser evil voting is premised on a comparison between two evils.”  Not only do we not “obscure the fact” that LEV involves the choice between two evils, we insist on it, as lesser evil voting, by definition, unambiguously asserts that both choices are evil.  Furthermore, rather than endorse a “moral adherence” to voting, we specifically repudiate it noting that “voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement.”  Kelley may have been confused by our response to advocates of the “politics of moral witness”  that even if one accepts the premise that one should attach a moral judgement to electoral choices, their argument fails on its own terms.  But as should be apparent, and as we note in point 1), our endorsement of LEV is in no way on moralistic grounds.  Indeed, we regard the high dudgeon but ultimately empty moral posturing of those opposing LEV as both an obstacle to clear thinking and to progressive change.

4) Finally, Kelley describes me as “a trenchant critic of race-first identity politics,” but complains that I “revert to identitarian banalities about ‘white skin privilege.’”

While I have indeed criticized some of those deploying the term, only a fool or a racist would suggest that “white skin privilege” has ceased to exist or that exposing it among “benighted sectors of the ultra left” constitutes “identitarian banality”. That’s particularly so when the shoe fits so naturally those who insist on minimizing the dangers of racist violence which the Trump campaign has at the core of its identity.  To blithely ignore the alarm communicated by 94 percent of the African American population speaks to a form of narcissistic self aggrandizement unseen since the days of the Weathermen. In what is a typical display of performative ultra leftism, Kelley mounts his high horse to assault academics who, he claims (without evidence), fail to “talk to and learn from workers”.  What is again revealing is his failure to include the word “listen”, something that he and others appears to be incapable of when it comes to the likely victims of Trump’s policies.

*****

These are only four of the more tendentious and trivial misreadings in Kelley’s piece.  Others making similar and generally equally bankrupt claims have been  routinely posted to me via social media or to Professor Chomsky via email,  typically with headers hyping the contents as  “a devastating takedown of Chomsky” or “brutally laying waste to the LEV argument.”  Often laced with obscenities and infantile name calling, the schoolyard epithets “Killary” or “Shillary” repeatedly invoked, in the pre-internet period when minimal editorial standards were in force, they would not have found their way into print. Had they somehow appeared, they would not have merited a response.

Nor do they merit a response now.  My purpose in drawing attention to them here is that they are indicative of broader tendencies which both Chomsky and myself have discussed in the past, specifically, the willful blindness to facts and logic among sectors of the left, whether these are academic post modernists questioning the validity of established science, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 “truthers” or Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists.  Anyone who has attempted to advance electoral or non-electoral activist campaigns is well aware that these elements exist and pose a significant obstacle to our capacity to organize a viable alternative to elite hegemony.

Those blithely minimizing the dangers of a Trump presidency while at the same time narcissistically inflating the significance of a tactical vote to head off the worst offered by a corrupt system should be included within the same category.

Insofar as they continue to exert influence, they will consign the left to deserved irrelevancy.

Adolph Reed on LEV

Exchange from Adolph Reed’s 7/7/16 appearance on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News

DH: The movement that has catalyzed with the Sanders campaign, how can we keep it from dissipating as November approaches. “Trump is so horrible, you know, hold your nose and vote for Hillary. etc.” There’s a great possibility for induced amnesia to set in. How do we fight that?

AR: What one does in November lies in a different dimension from the movement building concerns. From a pragmatic point of view there really is nothing else to do except to vote for Hillary. But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.

DH: People get so obsessed with something that takes five minutes to do in early November. It’s really remarkable.

AR: Absolutely. On some level it only comes down to a matter of taste and existential choice. I could vote for Gore in 2000. I lived in Connecticut and it was easy not to vote for Gore in 2000 and to vote for Ralph. I’d argue that this is a different moment and especially with Republican control of Congress-even if they lose the Senate which is a long shot . . . we’re going to be in the same position on the Wednesday after the election than we were on the Monday before the election. The real challenge is to try to disconnect the organizing from it being driven by the election cycle.

Final Thoughts on Elie Wiesel

It won’t come as a surprise that Noam Chomsky was not among those donning sackcloth and ashes in response to the demise of Elie Wiesel.  He did, however, provide a reminder of a passage in his 1999 book The New Military Humanism which gives a pretty revealing indication of why few of us were willing to accept the dominant media characterization of Wiesel as a secular saint.

As some of us will remember, during much of the 1980s, the Guatemalan government was engaged in what has been widely acknowledged to be a genocidal assault against its rural, Mayan population.

While the U.S. government backed the Rios Montt regime, it could not directly support the campaign since, as Chomsky notes, “direct U.S. engagement was hampered by congressional oversight and public opinion.”

A workaround was arranged whereby a proxy role was outsourced to the Israeli miliitary which provided the necessary equipment and training of the troops.

As deaths began to mount into the hundreds of thousands, reports of the displacement of over a million campesinos and other widespread atrocities began to receive attention, activists sounded the alarm on the role of Israel. According to Chomsky, one of those attempting to pressure it to withdraw its support was MIT professor Salvatore Luria.  A Nobel prize winner in biology, Luria decided to communicate his concerns to his fellow Nobelist Wiesel, providing substantial documentation of the Guatemalan military’s abuse along with the “suggestion that he might use his prestige and contacts to keep ‘evil from gaining strength’” (the latter Wiesel’s own words in support of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.)

Knowing that Wiesel would not take a public position, Luria specifically requested that these overtures be made in private.

Some weeks passed without a response.

Then an interview in the Israeli press appeared in which Wiesel, without mentioning names, disclosed that he had received Luria’s request. Chomsky continues, “Wiesel ‘sighed,’ the journalist reported, saying that ‘I usually answer at once, but what can I answer to him?’ Not that the documentation is flawed, because he recognized that it was not, but because even private communication exceeds the limits of subordination to state power and violence to which ‘The Prophet from New York’ is committed.”

Selective vision when it comes to genocide, as Chomsky has noted, is one of the defining characteristics the world’s elite political class.

Even so, Wiesel’s vulgar exploitation of his victim status and the stench of hypocrisy emanating from it were particularly hard to endure.

Personal Anecdote: Graeber and Me

It must have been in the fall of 2001 when strolling down Orange Street with David Graeber, we ran into the Mayor of New Haven’s chief of staff, a fairly typical Ivy League technocrat named Henry Gonzalez. Of course, he detested me (as I recall, I had just voted against the mayor’s budget in the Board of Aldermen based on his doling out for himself a pay raise while demanding salary concessions from the municipal workers’ unions), but we maintained at least cordial relations so I introduced him to David. I remember at the time trying to explain to David what the Greens in New Haven were trying to accomplish, and insofar as there was a core vision, it revolved around challenging the assumption of machine Democrats like Gonzalez “that the role of a representative is not to represent, not to listen, but to tell people what to do.”

Our view was to try “to move from a politics of accountability to one of participation: to create forms of popular education and decision-making that allow community groups and local assemblies made up of citizens of all political stripes to make key decisions affecting their lives.”

These two quotations are from David’s superb piece from today’s  Guardian. I should say that at the time, David was unconvinced, and, as the New Haven Greens would implode not long after, we were never able to make the case to him for electoral politics as a viable means to implement this vision. David was working, as he describes them in the piece, “in movements aimed at creating new forms of bottom-up democracy” and, so while he was supportive of our work, he regarded our attempts as excessively verticalist, remaining as “outsider” while investing himself in horizontalist movements, first the Global Justice Movement then later and most famously, Occupy Wall Street where he would become, well, David Graeber.

Now, almost 15 years later, Corbyn and the remarkable inside/outside formation Momentum, are showing that electoral politics can, in fact, serve in the capacity which we were arguing for 15 years ago. On some level, I feel a small sense of validation, but more importantly, I think the main lesson is from Graeber himself: he recognizes that, at least at the moment, the direction the movement is taking is not the one that’s in the playbook which he has spent years thinking about, developing and implementing. But he recognizes that the goal is much more important than the route by which we reach it. So he weighs in supportively, usefully, and as always, very perceptively in this piece.

Moving on from SSLEV

Of the various responses to the Halle/Chomsky Eight Point Brief for Lesser Evil Voting , I have chosen only to respond to a few criticisms from a self-identified “left” perspective as most of the major points have been dealt with adequately by others.  (See, for example, here , here and here as well as the comments sections here).

What is worth discussing now are criticisms from a far more politically consequential constituency, namely those opposing SSLEV from the right, or, as they would describe themselves, the “pragmatic” center.  For them, a vote for Clinton in a swing state is insufficient.  Rather, ALL Sanders voters should regard themselves as either morally or practically obligated to vote for Clinton, even in safe states where the result is certain.

There is, admittedly, a rational,  good faith, albeit weak argument to be made for an unconditional Clinton vote along the following lines: since most voters focus on the presidential race, rejecting Clinton will mean higher rates of abstention of those who would otherwise support down ticket Democrats with the result that they are unable to obtain a congressional majority.

The latter we should also be working to achieve but not because we should have high hopes for it: the 2008-2010 Democratic control of the House and Senate, after all, accomplished little in the way of progressive change.  Rather a Democratic majority is preferable, first of all, because it would prevent the catastrophe of a Republican Congress, with Speaker Paul Ryan certain to block any minimally decent legislation which Clinton might advance (likely in response to the pressure from left protest movements).  At the same time, a Democratic majority would remove a smokescreen Clinton will have available for her inevitable failure to deliver on most of her campaign promises. installed in governance, these will evaporate, and, if she lacks a Democratic majority, it will be chalked up to “Republican obstructionism.”

If she can be denied this excuse, her refusal to deliver even with a congressional majority could become one of the grounds for a serious primary or, if viable, third party challenge in 2020.

That said, congressional Democrats will not be able to take advantage of Clinton’s coattails since she is an uninspiring candidate with record high disapproval ratings.  Rather they will need to provide a sound, rational basis for why their policies deserve our support. if they do so, the overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters in safe states will split their ticket, rejecting Clinton’s politics of triangulation, concession and compromise, voting in Democrats who have committed to opposing it. The Democratic caucus emerging under these conditions would constitute a meaningful progressive majority, unlike the Potemkin Village erected by Democrats in 2008, one which would, in fact, be better able to combat the Republican far right.

A second reason offered for an unconditional Clinton vote is that SSLEV is “too cute”, “too clever by half” or even “dangerous” in that voters will not be able to reconcile their awareness of the reactionary character of Clintonite policies with the decision to vote for her in the states where it counts.  Being excessively forthright with respect to Clinton’s obvious shortcomings brings with it the potential that swing state voters will be unable to hold their noses to the requisite degree to head off a Trump presidency.

While this danger may exist, the subtext which the rejection of SSLEV communicates is problematic. Just as governing elites and their enablers in the media shielded the public from information on the effects of corporate trade deals, the Wall Street bailouts and the Iraq war, now they are attempting to efface Clinton’s role in the bipartisan policies which brought the domestic and world economy and society to the brink of ruin.  Even within the impoverished mechanisms of the electoral system, a vote for Clinton where it is not required signals at best ignorance or at worst consent to the governance of the one percent. Voting against Clinton where one can communicates to others an awareness of a corrupted process and a protest however small against elites having routinely deployed it to serve their ends.

The optimal outcome of the 2016 election will be a strong repudiation of Trump and his toxic mixture of nativist resentment, pseudo-populist demogoguery and commitment to destroying the planet through removing all limits on fossil fuel consumption and production. At the same time, it should indicate that the opposition to three decades of neoliberal ascendency which coalesced behind Sanders is now a permanent fixture of our politics, as Thomas Ferguson recently suggested. It will be prepared to oppose either the terrifying specter of Donald Trump or the less aggressively toxic brand represented by Clinton by all necessary means.  At the same time, it should clearly articulate its own positive program and prepare itself to strongly compete for positions to advance it in governance when the opportunity arises.