(The last in a thirteen-part series.)
What was the response to 9/11 on the political left, the direction from which was quickly drawn the historical cover of the “squandered sympathies” meme? There is no single answer. The “left” is not a unitary political tendency. It is stalwart, mainstream Democrats in the U.S. and the liberal “scoundrels” Slavjo Zizek scorns. It is readers of The Nation who vote for Democrats and others who still rationalize the Weathermen and will ever defend the Rosenbergs. It is those who sit at the feet of the Chomsky-Buddha, to the romancer of totalitarian Marxism, Zizek himself. To recognize the extremes of antipathy that emanated from the farther reaches of that spectrum, one can examine the historical record, as I have briefly done. One can also seek lineal relation.
The extremes of anti-Americanism of the Oughts find their focal point surrounding the Iraq War. By the launch of that war, the squandered sympathies meme was well established, and little that followed could do other than amplify it. It was the policies – the misguided reaction – that Iraq represented that produced the antipathy, the loss of sympathy; it was not present already on 9/11. So the misdirection leads us. However, now that we have some representative examples of the antipathetic response to 9/11, let’s briefly examine a too little known example of the worst of Iraq War anti-Americanism.
On August 18, 2004, by which time the American action in Iraq had descended into all out murderous chaos, Arundhati Roy delivered a speech in San Francisco before the American Sociological Association subtitled “Public Power in the Age of Empire.” (The title itself is quite silly.) The reader should recall the venue and the audience when I say that I happened by chance to hear a recording of the speech on radio station KPFK (Pacifica Radio) in Los Angeles, and that the speech was frequently interrupted by cheers. (Video here.) The speech in many respects could have been delivered by Chomsky, though Roy, a far better writer than Chomsky, offered moving, if unoriginal, flourishes that highlight the dangers of eloquence. Roy advocated violence, however, in a manner that goes beyond Chomsky.
To understand the import of the speech, and its central proclamation, we need only recall, regardless of one’s considerations of the Iraq fiasco, that the nature of the insurgent forces opposing the U.S. was without doubt – even for Roy. Nonetheless:
The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.
Did not Roy herself find this alliance just a little problematic? Indeed, she did. But she dealt with the problem handily.
Of course, [the Iraqi resistance] is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.
Of course, too, this is precisely the reasoning that American cold warriors themselves used to rationalize cooperation with oppressive regimes in opposition to Marxist expansion, and that U.S. has used in maintenance of its geopolitical interests the Middle East – and which the likes of Roy have used for decades as the demonstration par excellence of America’s moral corruptness.
Roy (and, from the cheers, too many in the American Sociological Association) posits here an ethical system that turns upon one fundament only: power and one’s relation to it. Only this kind of ethics – whether it be the power-based value system of a Saddam Hussein or its inverse, as we find it in the kind of monistic, post-colonial, ideologically world-rectifying system propounded by Arundhati Roy – could lead to a call for missionary alliance with the “Iraqi resistance.” In light of this, references in Roy’s speech to democracy and to non-violence are incoherent absurdities.
Although the kind of allegiance Roy claimed in her speech provides sufficient evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the thinking behind it, we should not overlook the analytical and emotional distortions that guide it as well. It was such distortions that enabled the left’s response to 9/11. Though Roy offered mock regret over the apparent necessity of violence in resisting “empire,” her warped characterizations of history and events, in fact, encouraged violence. She claims,
Whenever civil resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from symbolic action into anything remotely threatening, the crack down is merciless. We’ve seen what happened in the [anti-globalization, WTO, etc.] demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in Göthenberg, in Genoa.
We saw what happened, indeed. It was merciless. The demonstrators were rounded up in Gulags, not to be seen for decades. Many were shot in dank prison cells in the dead of night, and their names erased from official records. Others merely had the tongues cut out or were given acid baths. The mayors of Seattle and Genoa entertained themselves with videotapes of the torture. Some were gassed to death. Others were blown up by police who had turned themselves into human bombs. A few who had managed to escape were lured back by vows of forgiveness and then murdered. Merciless. And it is only the intellectual fools at their zenith, the privileged products of relatively free societies, who can characterize as merciless – against the backdrop of true historical and contemporary state brutality – such policing as occurred in those cities.
So, again, hear the inheritor of Herman Goering: a victor’s justice, which is to say a victor’s and a relative morality.
Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators, as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
Accordingly, all violence is the same, indistinguishable: the cold and brutal, the defensive, the protective. War. Terrorism. All the same. Just violence. No need to think by whom, against whom, for what reason – after what other efforts for how long to achieve what. No. The single principle of reality – power, the power of “empire” and the aspiration to invert it – determines everything, so we may assume the terrible face of moral blankness while we vocalize justice, upend Martin Luther King in his heaven, and perorate:
Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Colombia and the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Assam comes the chilling reply: ‘There’s no alternative but terrorism.’ Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you want.
In Roy’s swooning raptures over the impulse to armed struggle (yes, she calls the impulse “chilling,” but we see she wears a heavy overcoat) can be found the implosive contradiction and the corrosive hypocrisy in much of the Marxist and Marxist-infused postcolonial critique. The sources are varied and deeply theoretical, but the practical political criticism that is applied from this theorizing is always invested with a supreme moral outrage and condescension. Whence springs this value laden indignation? From dialectical materialism? From the study of discourses and grammatology? No. There is no basis for it there. There is – to choose a word – no foundation for indignation in historical and economic analysis only. There is no should in matter. Materialism, philosophies of language, and archaeologies of power can point the way to efficiencies in human relations and exchange that have moral effects, but they cannot found an ethics, and the fierce moralizing of those who oppose Western power and who reviled the U.S. on 9/11 has its springs in the religious ethical systems that for good and ill helped to found the modern world of Western liberal democracy, and in the enlightened humanism that emerged and departed from those systems.
Such are the politics of the moral imagination, however, that this historical accordance is ignored. And scorn is heaped upon the civilization that provides the measure by which to revile it.
* * *
And so to Adler, above the Atlantic. Or is it Chomsky? Or Adsky? Call him Adler. What is identity anyway? It is Adler who wings his way home aboard US Air, unmolested, to live another day, to teach, to write. And it was someone else who died in the towers. Or was it his brother?
We had crossed the Atlantic. I had gazed from my window at the grids of American cities and towns below. Now Julia and I stood in the baggage area of Pittsburgh’s international airport waiting to collect our baggage and pass through immigration and customs before boarding our flight to Los Angeles. We were home.
I had been in Pittsburgh only once before, for a weekend, more than ten years earlier. The place where I was born and had lived most of my life was hundreds of miles behind me, the place I lived now, over two thousand miles ahead. If I had walked out the doors into the October air to make my way, I’d have known not a body or soul. Home?
However senselessly, though very much a matter of sense, I felt it. I would rather live in Paris than Pittsburgh. But I felt it. We looked around, understood every scrap of conversation, read every face, understood the interactions around us. We gathered up our bags.
Standing in line to pass through immigration, we awaited readmittance. A formality. Yet it is not a vacant doorway. Someone is there to judge, to assess the terms. Of reentry as well as entry. One has rights, of course. But rights are the entailment of a system that affords or recognizes them; rights are not the absence of governance, a free passage. Rights are conduct exercised, not ignored. For the right to be recognized, the system must operate. So even if for no other, concrete purpose, someone stands at the door. Someone stands at the door to say that there are distinctions, borders, lines of demarcation. Once, between what we now call nations, these were only ideas, made real by the assertion of power and control. Then there were markers, on land or paper. And laws that encoded these marks, rendered ideas once again. Whence we come to the transcendence of those borders, which is an idea too. But like the laws that codify the borders, their transcendence – their elimination – must be agreed to, as well as the terms of the elimination, the new reality, the new idea. One cannot surrender one’s difference in the name of unity – either out of love or guilt, for that is not a synthesis, but a submission, a form of slavery. Justice among people is negotiated; it is not given as a gift. So someone stands at the door, and one is reminded, as one rarely is without going abroad, that residence is the source and product of dualities: citizen and non, part and apart, legal and illegal, in and out, here and there, home and away.
It was our turn now.
Julia and I handed the immigration officer our passports, along with the forms that listed the countries we had visited. The officer glanced up at us, expressionless. He looked back down at the documents. Julia asked me what countries we had visited, when she realized she had forgotten to list a couple. Like the good Nebraskan she is, she said so. The immigration officer, with his best official poker face, continued to peruse our passports, never looking up.
“Well,” he said, “we’ll let you back in anyway.”
He flipped the pages of the passports. There was nothing more for him to see, to consider. It was just the process, a reminder of the process. It is not a vacant door.
The officer exchanged a word or two with Julia. She softens everyone, even if only a little. And then from Julia – I no longer remember what made her say it:
“It’s good to be back home.”
The officer handed us back our passports.
“It’s good to have you back home,” he said.
- 9/11/11: The Stylus Avenger (sadredearth.com)
- 9/11/11: Chomsky Nation (sadredearth.com)
- 9/11/11: a “Good Terror” (sadredearth.com)
- 9/11/11: Goering’s Defense (sadredearth.com)
- Left Bereft: September 11, 2001 and the Politics of the Moral Imagination (sadredearth.com)
- Little Sympathy to Squander: the American Left & 9/11 (sadredearth.com)
- Twenty-Five Hundred Years before 9/11 (sadredearth.com)
- 9/11/11: Squandered Sympathies (sadredearth.com)
- Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11 (sadredearth.com)
- The Day The Bush War on Terror Began (anendtoempire.wordpress.com)
- How 9/11 saved my life (salon.com)
- Ten years on the War on Terror doesn’t look quite so bad (politicsontoast.com)
- Apathy, Ignorance And Passive Indifference Are Worse Than Government Corruption And Organized Evil (disquietreservations.blogspot.com)