Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Defunct Left Mourns Their Last, Good Ally

Upon hearing of the passing of Hugo Chávez, I set my watch for the moment when the remnants of the sclerotic, regressive, defunct left would come out to mourn the passing of one of their last comrades-in-arms. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long:

The fighter for the poor stuff I can set aside. It’s the democratically-elected, champion of the oppressed, Spartacus, great statesman of the age bullshit I’m having a little trouble stomaching at the moment. Freedom House certainly thought that his “re-election in 2012 was ensured by the massive abuse of state resources.” Human Rights Watch also seemed to disagree somewhat with Galloway’s glowing assessment:

President Hugo Chávez, who has governed Venezuela for 14 years, was elected to another six-year term in October 2012. During his presidency, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled his government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda. President Chávez and his supporters have used their powers in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and human rights defenders. Prison violence and police abuse remain serious problems. 

As did the Heritage Foundation:

The judiciary is dysfunctional and completely controlled by the executive. Politically inconvenient contracts are abrogated, and the legal system discriminates against or in favor of investors from certain foreign countries. The government expropriates land and other private holdings across the economy arbitrarily and without compensation. Corruption, exacerbated by cronyism and nepotism, is rampant at all level of government.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day in Israel: Whither Maki?

Note: An updated version of this article appears in The Atlantic, entitled "May Day in Israel: Scenes from a Communist Rally in the Holy Land", May 2, 2012

NAZARETH – And who said the international left was dead? Or perhaps we merely hoped as much. Rather, it is alive and well and living in Israel, for this weekend past a succession of rallies and protests were held in alignment with May 1 – International Workers’ Day – campaigning, MK Dov Khenin informed me, for social justice, peace, democracy, and the two-state solution.

Under the direction of the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), part of the broader Hadash movement since 1977, demonstrations were held on Friday evening in Jerusalem, Saturday night in Haifa, and on Sunday in Tel Aviv. In Nazareth prior to luncheon on Saturday, hundreds of people from across the generations and genders spilled out for a march which crossed from a petrol station located near to the Catholic Church of the Annunciation northward towards a somewhat dilapidated and decrepit concrete residential and commercial development across from Mary’s Well (where Orthodox Christians believe the Virgin Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, thus commencing her pregnancy).

Whilst the influx of Russian immigrants and the perpetual occupation have combined to edge the country ever to the right, Hadash – a superficially joint Judeo-Arab front of socialist parties and organisations – won four seats in the most recent elections to the Knesset. They propose a self-described non-Zionist platform, one opposed to all forms of nationalism, in favour of total withdrawal from the West Bank and other territories gained after 1967 (an “aggressive war”), and the institutionalisation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The report on Maki’s most recent Party Congress in March speaks of the dangers of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, and the dangers posed by the ‘fascistic’ Netanyahu government.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does he matter?

Who is Saul Alinsky? is the question I asked myself after watching Newt Gingrich’s victory speech in South Carolina Saturday night. He evokes Alinsky’s name frequently, and always with that awfully unattractive sneer, as in — “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky” — from said celebratory address. Or — “Obama believes in a Saul Alinsky radicalism which the press corps was never willing to look at. When he said he was a community organizer, it wasn’t Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It was radicalism taught on the south side of Chicago by Saul Alinsky” — from a campaign stop in South Carolina prior to the primary.

Well, in brief, Saul Alinsky was a Chicago-born community organiser (an outside figure who joins neighbourhood residents together so that they may campaign collectively for their common good) who worked initially in the labor movement in the 1930s, before operating in the city’s ghettos in the 1940s and 50s.

Labelled “one of the great American leaders of the non-socialist left”, Alinsky published Rules for Radicals in 1971, which outlines the processes and machinations of community organising to the next generations, influenced by the struggles of the late-1960s. Alinsky advocated a confrontational method for curing economic inequality, stating: “Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take [power] away.”

This tome, according to Politico, is “said to have influenced Barack Obama’s thinking as a young community organiser”. Obama and Alinsky never met: the latter died in 1972, over ten years before Obama would move to Chicago to direct the Developing Communities Project.

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Friday, September 23, 2011 Saturday, July 23, 2011 Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Hitchens Matters

It is impossible to write an ode to a dying man without producing what reads like a premature obituary. However carefully the writer adjusts or fine-tunes his phraseology, the piece will inevitably come out as a lament, prior to the actual event.

This is the catch I have fallen into, and I begrudgingly surrender to it, in seeking to pay tribute to Christopher Hitchens during what hopefully is not, but sadly appears to be, the final chapter of his existence. Having been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, for which he is currently undergoing treatment, news has emerged that it has spread to his lymph nodes, the small rounded organs which are part of the immune system, found in proximity to the throat.

Survival rates for oesophageal cancer continue to have a poor outlook overall, in spite of recent medical advances: of those who have an operation to remove the cancer, one in four remains alive five years later. Once the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes however, the chance of survival decreases further. “In whatever kind of a “race” life may be,” Hitchens wrote in this month’s Vanity Fair, “I have very abruptly become a finalist.

To see him now in his present condition – visibly thinner, paler, hair all but vanquished bar the odd wisp – is despairing. His mind is still very much alive, but the body is slowing breaking down, the result of intense chemotherapy. Thoughts at this time turn recollective, unavoidably so.

The first and primary thing that ought to be noted is the beauty and quality of his prose: for whatever criticisms are made of his politics, his writing can never be overshadowed. Nowhere is this exquisiteness more evident than in his new memoir, which contains a touching chapter on his late mother, Yvonne:

Yvonne, then, was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easy have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English grey. She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.

But the phrases could be turned to fashion a more polemical style, the sort which has dominated his work consumed by the public. It is my belief that Hitchens has and will continue to matter in this vain: as a staunch defender and ally of the freeman, and those who aspire to shatter their bonds of servitude. This anti-totalitarian streak, derivative of his passion for Orwell in part, has manifested itself in two important guises since the fall of the Berlin Wall: his support for the liberation of Iraq; and his denouncement of religious authority.

Whilst most of the international Left turned toward outposts of tyranny in a bid to find anti-American footholds in a world absent of clear friends and foes, Hitchens wisely distanced himself from former comrades-in-arms such as Noam Chomsky, who argued in 2006 outright that ‘Hezbollah’s insistence on keeping its arms is justified’.

The seeds of this political separation are to be found in the fate of Salman Rushdie. When he was ‘hit by simultaneous life and death sentences’ in February 1989 by the ruling of a senile cleric in Tehran, leftists including Germaine Greer and John Berger couldn’t wait to criticise Rushdie for having caused such great offence. Hitchens however was much braver and truer; the defence was instinctive:

When the Washington Post telephoned me at home on Valentine’s Day 1989 to ask my opinion about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah, I felt at once that there was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved.

The importance of the Rushdie case can not be overstated, Hitchens argues, for we were warned then of the clash that would emerge between Enlightenment values and clerical autocracy – “Salman was the messenger”. The split between Hitchens and the old left that emerged from the Rushdie affair would cement itself through their enormous divergence regarding the liberation of Iraq.

For Hitchens, the decision to support the removal of Iraq’s psychomander-in-chief was the conclusion of a lengthy and difficult philosophical transition. Through visits to Iraq and interaction with members of the secular and Kurdish communities, he acknowledged that Saddam could not and should not remain in power: mad, genocidal and megalomanical as he was. As the debate leading up to the intervention grew fierce, it became suddenly obvious to him that he ‘couldn’t any longer remain where he was on the political spectrum’.

His support for the liberation of the Iraqi people remained resolute through his painful emancipation from the left, in the wake of increasing hostile and bitchy attacks from the likes of Alexander Cockburn – old friends left behind. Moreover, as the fate of the war went south – not only military but as the cacophony of lies the public were fed began to repeat – Hitchens continued to support the effort on grounds of morality. Writing in The Weekly Standard in September 2005, he gave us this perfect, succinct summation:

Coexistence with aggressive regimes or expansionist, theocratic, and totalitarian ideologies is not in fact possible. …It is not desirable, either. If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated, I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat.

Hitchens, then, for aspirational contrarians, free-spirits and independent minds will forever remain the gin in the Campari. In a political world which is becoming ever more diluted by pragmatists and opportunists, his radical and unwavering stances on matters from The Satanic Verses to the fate of Iraq are auroras borealis piercing leaden, darkening skies. May his words be an undying beacon in the darkness, when all other lights are out.