Saturday, 23 March 2013

Mailer's Conservatism.

Question: It was much more clean when you were an anarchist. We knew what that meant. But Left-Conservative?

Mailer: I have to redefine the term for myself every day because on its face, we have an oxymoron. But, it does have meaning for me. I think there are elements in the remains of left-wing philosophy (which has not had all that many new ideas for the last 30 years), that are worth maintaining.

Question: Such as?

Mailer: The idea that a very rich man should not make 4,000 times as much in a year as a poor man. On the other hand, I am not a liberal. The notion that man is a rational creature who arrives at reasonable solutions to knotty problems is much in doubt as far as I’m concerned. Liberalism depends all too much on having an optimistic view of human nature. But the history of the 20th century has not exactly fortified that notion. Moreover, liberalism also depends too much upon reason rather than any appreciation of mystery. If you start to talk about God with the average good liberal, he looks at you as if you are more than a little off. In that sense, since I happen to be—I hate to use the word religious, there are so many heavy dull connotations, so many pious self-seeking aspects—but I do believe there is a Creator who is active in human affairs and is endangered. I also believe there is a Devil who is equally active in our existence (and is all too often successful). So, I can hardly be a liberal. God is bad enough for them, but talk about the devil, and the liberal’s mind is blown. He is consorting with a fellow who is irrational if not insane. That is the end of real conversation.

On the other hand, conservatism has its own deep ditches, its unclimbable walls, its immutable old ideas sealed in concrete. But lately, there are two profoundly different kinds of conservatives emerging, as different in their way as the communists and the socialists were before and after 1917, yes, two types of conservatives in America now. What I call “value conservatives” because they believe in what most people think of as the standard conservative values—family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance—dependable human virtues. And then there are what I call “flag conservatives,” of whom obviously the present administration would be the perfect example.

I don’t think flag conservatives give a real damn about conservative values. They use the words. They certainly use the flag. They love words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) is to use the word “evil” as if it were a button he can touch to increase his power. When people are sick and have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as his hot button for the American public. Any man who can employ that word 15 times in five minutes is not a conservative. Not a value conservative. A flag conservative is another matter. They rely on manipulation. What they want is power. They believe in America. That they do. They believe this country is the only hope of the world and they feel that this country is becoming more and more powerful on the one hand, but on the other, is rapidly growing more dissolute. And so the only solution for it is empire, World Empire. Behind the whole thing in Iraq is the desire to have a huge military presence in the near-East as a stepping stone for eventually taking over the world. Once we become a twenty-first century version of the old Roman Empire, then moral reform will come into the picture. The military is obviously more puritanical than the entertainment media. Soldiers can, of course, be wilder than anyone, but the overhead command is a major pressure on soldiers, and it is not permissive.

Question: Who in American politics is a value conservative?

Mailer: Someone like Taft would be a good example of a value conservative. Eisenhower, probably, a gentle value conservative. More recently? Reagan, I think, was not. I will say that I don’t think Reagan ever had an original idea in his life. I once sat next to him, as near as I am sitting to you, at a lunch for eight people. This was in 1972 at the convention that nominated Nixon for the second time. I spent the entire meal trying to figure out a tough question to ask him. I always found that if you meet someone’s eyes, a good question can come to mind. And for two hours he sat there, perfectly calm and pleasant and kept making jokes and talking. It was a lightweight conversation. The physical impression of him was that he had about as much human specific density as, let’s say, a sales manager for a medium-sized corporation in the Midwest. That kind of modest, mild, well-knit heft was in his bearing. During those two hours, he chatted with all six Time reporters at the table, and his eyes never met mine. I found myself unable to come up with that tough question as a result. It became a matter of decorum. The mood was too genial. It occurred to me after he became president that he probably, if he could help it, never spent time talking to anyone who was of no use to him. An instinctive climber who scaled the face of success with great skill: that was his gift, if you will. He was surrounded by people who had many powerful ideas and who illumined him to the point where they could wind him up and then he could do his special stuff. At the time, he had an enormous impact on value conservatives because they thought he was one of them. I suspect he had about as much to do with them as a screen star does with an agricultural laborer.

Friday, 15 March 2013

No Earthly Ideas.

As Obama is still settling into his second term, many have already turned to speculate at who will be running in 2016. Speculation over a GOP candidate range from Chris Christie to Paul Ryan and beyond, whereas prognostications regarding a Democratic candidate seem to be preoccupied with Hillary Clinton. In the background you should be able to sense the lowering of expectations, a foreclosure on the very possibility of a manifested opposition. The realm of the possible narrows further, the field down closes to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for the pollsters. Of course, it remains to be seen who is even considering running. At this point all potential candidates will shirk from announcing such a bid for fear of putting a hat in the ring too early. That's just sensible conduct for any politico. So it should surprise no one that when Bill Clinton was asked whether or not Hillary would run he responded by saying he had "no earthly idea". With that non-answer Bill demonstrates the same glibness that would win over the audience at the Democratic National Convention.
By 2016 BO, as the reactionaries call him, will be even more withered and white-haired than today, a far cry from the inflated Kennedy-cum-Christ figure of 2008. That figure will be an even more distant memory in four years than it is today. Not a modicum of the Messiah left, instead a mauled continuity pervades. Given the level of hopeful projections onto Obama, disillusionment was inevitable. The lowering of expectations is not unusual to Democratic politics, very often it lays the way for the politics of reaction. The disappointments of Jimmy Carter led to the Reaganites gaining office through a mediocre mandate to roll back the intrusive government. Similarly the Clinton era left the Democrats without a legacy worth defending when the Bushites were ushered into office under disgraceful circumstances. It's strangely appropriate that we find Clinton being hailed as a future candidate at this point. It's as though the despair in the awake of Obama's second term are already foreseeable. And that's true because there's so much to cry about already.

In February Democratic pollsters found Hillary Clinton leads the top GOP 2016 contenders in red states such as Alaska, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia. Even though Clinton had only been replaced with Kerry for a week or two at this point and the prospects of her nomination still seem way-out to those concerned by dynastic formations in apparently democratic societies. It looks like Obama is the future and Romney is the past just going by the demographic change in birth-rates. So the white populism that Clinton reached for in '08 definitely won't cut it in '16. It's plausible that she could appeal to the Latina vote simply as she's a Democrat and on the moral issue of abortion. By contrast, it's difficult to spot a spokesperson of American conservatism capable of overcoming the GOP's contradictions. The Republicans will probably have to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric to gain a greater slice of the hispanic vote. Then in March Reason estimated there is around 22% of support for Clinton. It seems more likely than it did a couple of months ago.
What might we expect from a future Clinton White House? The eminent feminist Bonnie Greer deems the Obama administration a second Clinton administration. That's one answer to the question. So if Hillary Clinton wins office it will be the third Clinton White House. With all of this in mind, we can judge the woman by her record at the State Department, as well as the period in which she was First Lady. We can set our expectations pretty low if these joint-records are to be taken as a fair representation of Clinton. And we have no reason to think otherwise. So we may gauge a few things from the Clinton record at the White House, which contains a few serious hiccups:
  • On the campaign trail Bill Clinton was faced with mounting interest in his extramarital relationship with Gennifer Flowers. The candidate opted to see to it that a lobotomised black man was put to death.
  • The first Clinton administration armed the Turkish government as it waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds and leaving 50,000 people dead.
  • Having inherited the aftermath of the First Gulf War the Clinton White House imposed economic sanctions against Iraq and starved over 500,000 people to death.
  • President Clinton bombed an aspirin factory in Sudan under the pretence that it was a chemical weapons factory. In fact it's likely that the President knew full well and was looking for a neat distraction with Monica Lewinsky in the news reels.
  • During this period Hillary Clinton advocated military intervention in Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999). She is no dove in other words.

There is plenty more to go into, though we should probably scrutinise the Clinton record at the State Department. In office with former rival Obama the Clinton record does not fair much better. The Obama administration reacted with timidity to the Arab Awakening that threatened to unseat all kinds of bulwarks to democracy. Clinton was not a voice of dissent and described Mubarak as 'family' only to see Hosni given the boot by his generals. Clinton oversaw the NATO intervention in Libya, which rapidly escalated from a UN sanctioned no-fly zone to a full-blown and illegal bombing campaign on the side of the rebels. Though at least the campaign was on the side of a rebellion. You can't even say that about the swarms of drones Clinton sent over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Impressed yet? And this is meant to be the best of American liberalism, its finest choice for the State Department in 2008 and its President in 2016.
All the while the Clintons have been more than complicit, totally supportive actually, of the decline of the American welfare state. Then there's the stomping out of the social democratic wing of the Democrats. They pioneered the method of triangulation, which goes as follows: loot the supportable planks from the Republican platform, bag the corporate funding that follows it; "test the water" with polling, all while keep the liberal Left on board with the lesser evil logic. Obama and the Clintons represent the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Do we really need another right-wing in American politics? Aren't the Republicans right-wing enough for both parties? Expect nothing less from the people who thought that the problem in America, after 12 years of Republican government, is that the Democratic Party is too left-wing. Not only that but the American under-class have to be brought back in line, it's not warfare but welfare to be slashed and burned.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Not Forgetting the Kurds!

    For a long time Robert Fisk always rendered his references to the Palestinian homeland with quotation marks - it will be 'Palestine' until it exists as a state he righty put it. That was the case until the UN voted to bestow a limited form of statehood to the Palestinians. At that moment 'Palestine', at long last, became Palestine. There remains another stateless people in the Middle East, and there is a state that has yet to be established for the political liberation of that people. I am referring to the Kurds and 'Kurdistan'. Even though the Kurds are the largest people without a state in the world it's a cause that too often goes unheard. It's a cause which deserves a lot more support than it is given in the West. By comparison the Palestinian cause gains much more coverage - even though it's mostly framed as a defence of the Israeli position on Palestine.
    The Western media regularly goes on the defensive whenever Israel engages in outright aggression. Typically it's the wars, not the systematic forms of oppression that the Palestinians are subjected to on a day-to-day basis. For a long time the Kurds have been ignored, as the crimes against them constitute the constructive bloodbaths which go on in the blindspot of mass-media. Note the presuppositions of all debate on the Kurdish grievances are often schewed to the side of their oppressors. This was true of the complicit silence of the West over the campaigns of ethnic cleansing in countries such as Iraq and Turkey. Somehow the Kurdish cause became a fetish of liberal hacks looking to justify their support for the invasion of Iraq. The Far-Left in many countries campaigned against the war and conceded this ground to the pro-war camp. It made perfect sense to many of the Kurds to support the invasion with the hope of regime change and the possibility of greater autonomy for their people.

    It was a mistake for the radical Left to disregard the not-so-historic grievances of the Kurdish people. For it was the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein that had subjected the Kurds to a brutal attempt of extirpation by poison gas. It was a campaign which left over 180,000 people dead in the late 1980s. At that time Saddam Hussein was a recipient of enormous support from the US and Britain, who cared nothing for the victims of his slaughterhouse regime. Nevertheless, the case for Kurdish rights would later be used as part of the justifications for the interventions in Iraq made by both Bush administrations. In 1991 it was convenient for George the Elected to make quick use of the Kurdish claim to rights and promptly abandoned them soon after withdrawal. Yet the Americans created a no-fly zone over the country they betrayed the Iraqis again, with support for Saddam over Iraqi dissidents and support for sanctions which ravaged the country.
    This was not the first time the Kurds had been betrayed by the US. It was in the 1970s that the caretaker administration of Gerry Ford pledged support to the Kurds and compelled them into a rebellion. It was an insurgency that was only defeated once the Iranians and the Americans abruptly withdrew their support for the Kurds. Later, The Kurds actually benefited from the no-fly zone in that the dark days of the late 80s were not revisited. By that time the campaign of violence had hardened the forces of Kurdish liberation. There was a price for this breathing time, Iraqi 'Kurdistan' later found itself the door into the country for Abu al-Zarqawi. The presence of Zarqawi in Iraq (the part not controlled by Saddam) was later used to back claims that the Ba'ath Party had links to al-Qaeda. Once again the Kurds would find themselves the beneficiaries of US-led interventionism.
    The first election to take place in occupied Iraq during the occupation instated Jalal Talabani as President. Talabani had been a leader of the fight for Kurdish rights and autonomy in Iraq long before and amidst the savagery unleashed upon his people by Saddam Hussein. Talabani's Kurdish sisters and brothers broke into celebration in Iran and Syria. Of course, the election was only held in 2005 after a great deal of protest within Iraq and, in the end, it was arranged to ratify a series of illegal economic measures imposed on the country. The mercurial socialist Talabani had no way of undoing the reforms passed by the Americans at that time. Just as Talabani had pledged loyalty to Saddam Hussein as the strong man annexed Kuwait. Fortunately, for the Kurds, Talabani had made a wise bet, whereas the Palestinians in Kuwait had made a most unwise bet. Soon the Palestinians became victims of Kuwaiti reprisals and were ultimately expelled.
    It is not difficult to see why the Kurdish question has gone unheard, only to be neglected by the Left as the US invaded Iraq and exploited by liberals at the same time. Whenever the rights of Kurds have positive value for the West then the discourse will turn in their favour. So as the Kurds became a force for opposition to Tikriti gangsters and the mullahs in Tehran the apologists for Empire discovered them. It's worth mentioning that the poison gas method employed by the Ba'ath Party was first advocated by Winston Churchill. That was just as the British occupied Iraq after the state was created in the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It may be due to the lack of a certain plan for Kurdish emancipation that it has left the Kurdish people in an ambiguous position with regard to the American superpower. The Palestinians are certainly the victims of American imperialism.
    However, this should not deter us on the radical Left from standing in solidarity with the Kurds. The artificial condition of the borders of states such as Iraq and Syria lends greater weight to the case for Kurdich autonomy. The political emancipation of the Kurds may offer a way to redefine boundaries created by imperialism. It was the interests of British and French colonialists (let alone the Turks and the Russians) have always prevailed over any demands for Kurdish autonomy. This was the case when modern Iraq was created, the Kurds were first promised independence and then briskly stabbed in the back over the oil under their feet. Instead of a democratic state the Kurds were absorbed into Iraq, a state constructed without any regard for local tribal formations. And so it was the Kurdish people were left to languish in abject servitude for decades to come.
    We can further the cause of human emancipation without giving up on anti-imperialism. The liberation of the Kurds won't be fulfilled until the boundaries created by Empire are undermined and the economic system that sustains the situation in the Middle East has been overhauled. The bourgeois forms of liberation made possible by liberal interventionism may hold extrinsic value insofar as these means facilitate the emancipatory process. The invasion of Iraq had tremendous disvalue, the occupation was a great injustice and Iraq still lives with the horrifying consequences of its results. The intrinsic value is in the ultimate liberation of human beings. It's possible to walk a fine line on this question. It takes subtlety and sophistication. Something our discourse lacks desperately. Even if the Iraq war had been a total success then the position of the Kurds would still be one of relative insecurity. It was a military project that was never concerned Kurdish liberation.
    There are obvious limitations in liberal internationalism as in the precarious position it has left the Kurds in. The copious quantities of oil under the feet of men like Massoud Barzani means that the autonomy may well be subject to the whim of foreign interests. The prospects of independence are interesting right now as a new pipeline between 'Kurdistan' and Turkey may enable the Kurds to export oil without permission from Baghdad. Potentially this could give 5 million Iraqi Kurds a degree of economic independence in order to further enable greater political independence. It's not impossible for Turkey to decide that it is not in its interests to defy Baghdad and break up Iraq. After all the Turks have their own Kurds to worry about. As Patrick Cockburn reflects "Self-determination is close, but not quite there yet."

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Hugo's Crime.

    The passing of Hugo Chavez has provoked the standard chorus from the familiar rabble of independent minds. It was another instance of the conformity of the non-conformists. It was to be expected. Chavez had committed the unspeakable crime of not bowing to Washington, not just surviving its bungled putsch, but marching onwards further left. Dippy Toby Young fell back on the writings of Christopher Hitchens to dub Chavez a cross-breed between General Peron and Kim Jong-il. Meanwhile Rod Liddle decided on the word 'pillock' to label Chavez supporters. That was before little Rod managed to cram every hysterical accusation ever made against the man into an article of around 150 words. That's to be expected from the Right. Yet the liberals found much more grounded points, namely those often mentioned human rights violations: specifically, encroachments upon the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press.

    Over at The Guardian Nick Cohen sqawked at Seamus Milne about human rights in Venezuela. He was right to refer to the highly questionable, to say the least, encroachment by the party-state on the judiciary to shunt Judge Maria Afiuni into a cell in 2009. Mr What's Left also referred to the canceling of RCTV's free license to broadcast terrestrially, even though the station maintained its right to broadcast via satellite and cable. When confronted with the fact that RCTV had supported a military putsch to overthrow Chavez and, install a right-wing dictatorship, Mr What's Left soon went on the defensive. Babbling Cohen dredged up the attempt by Chavez in 1992 to overthrow an appallingly violent government - that had slaughtered 3,000 people in 1989 - with a privatisation agenda. Although Cohen seemed to want to praise Chavez for the move he had made to establish universal health-care and education in Venezuela. By the end it was apparent that the self-proclaimed last liberal failed to take these accomplishments seriously.

    You can easily spot the contrarians, they come in herds. The independent minds behind the Euston Manifesto love a good parade. The difference between these sorry liberals and the reactionnaires are emblematic. As with the French Revolution, the Right finds trouble with the very idea of 1789 whereas the liberals barf over 1793. So here we find the problem for the conservatives was Chavez by his very existence, for liberals the problem was the man's persistence. He proved you don't need to compromise, a most overrated fetish of liberalism. If Chavez had been overthrown properly in 2002, or better yet killed, before delivering on serious reform then the liberals and, indeed, sections of the Left would have a clean martyr. The coup of '92 would be forgotten, instead pages could be filled with ink about the glorious changes that would have been enacted had Chavez lived longer. To some extent this tune will be played by the Left should Venezuela descend back into darkness. Likewise the reactionists will toot and tweet that the death of Chavez has saved the country.

    We should be big enough to recognise the greatness of Hugo Chavez without losing sight of the flaws in his government and its achievements. It's possible to remain responsible and pragmatic leftists in a way which puts the liberals to shame. The left-wing critics of the late Comandante are the sort who prioritise conviction over responsibility. That's what differentiates them from the Chavez supporters who are much more pragmatic. It's correct to be scrupulous given the record Chavez developed for siding with despots. He even went as far as to side with Gaddafi amidst the Libyan Civil War and later sent oil to fuel Assad's war on his own people. And yet it's also important to keep in mind that there are no angels to save us. Demanding perfection from the most imperfect of situations amounts to a different kind of politics to anything serious. It's more the sort of politics that can be heard whenever someone makes a nebulous call for 'world peace'. Not only is it impractical, it's well distant from any theoretical concerns.

    Furthermore, the willingness to get one's hands dirty is a rarity in a world where the major political battles have been won by the Right. It's especially underrated in a discourse where radicalism is always portrayed as one step away from totalitarianism. Chavez was daring enough to try and defeat neoliberalism militarily, and when that failed the military man took up the ballot box as his weapon of choice. He was smart enough to recognise the opportunity of pursuing constitutional reform and then he was emboldened after the failed coup d'etat in 2002. Against all the odds the Comandante seemed to strive, almost unstoppable. No wonder the man thought he may be Simon BolĂ­var reincarnated. It was heroism in the struggle that Chavez demonstrated in his tenacity at the helm of a class war government. The liberal apprehension is at the prospects of success and not imminent defeat. The ambiguous legacy of Chavez actually doesn't even enter into the picture.

    What should we take from all of this? Firstly, it's important to remember that the battle is still raging for Latin America's future. The same fight has yet to culminate elsewhere. Believe it or not the socialist tradition is a tragic creed, as Terry Eagleton is right to remind us, in its awareness of the long horror story that lies behind and ahead. Resistance is by virtue of its condition uncomfortable. It requires commitment and sacrifice, for Progress often comes at a huge price. Its arrival may be hastened if we are willing to fight for it. Responsibility, not conviction, is revolutionary in its acceptance of the contours of resistance and the willingness to exercise power in full knowledge of the consequences. More than ever we could do with heroism on the Left. It's stoical fortitude that the liberals lack in particular, while it's a preserve for all serious radicals. This is what divides liberals from radicals on Chavez more or less. And we shouldn't concede any ground to liberalism on this front.