There’s a certain tactic I’ve noticed lately of writers making seemingly profound pronouncements but concluding with vague, difficult to categorize conclusions. This then allows them to easily slither away from being pinned down to a position when called out. It’s probably present in all political strains but I’m most concerned with its appearance among writers who position themselves as representative of the left.
Many people find the ally or enemy they need in Glenn Greenwald, almost regardless of what he says or does. I’ll leave analysis of the Snowden show to those more adept, but the schtick involved in that spectacle is being copied by satellite lefties perhaps inspired by Greenwald’s success in leveraging essentially toothless dissent. Occupy-emergent artist Molly Crabapple can call for a No-Fly Zone in Syria and then in the same breath deny she advocates bombing, or write an article describing – adeptly! – the horrors of American policing and end it with a literal joke of a “solution.”
The past week treated us to another Occupy celebrity, “Anarchy Dad” David Graeber, berating the “world” — by which he means the “international left” — for “ignoring the plight of the revolutionary Kurds” in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, in their fight against the Islamic State (IS). The solipsistic scolding (“I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution”) is framed within his own father’s commitment to the fight against Spanish fascists in the 30s. Since the piece was devoid of a prescription, the Twitter left scratched its collective head.
The real fun came when Graeber, taken to task on Twitter, doubled down on his vagueness. He accused critics who saw his open-ended article as a pro-US intervention argument of being motivated by a desire for “moral purity“. Graeber, a professor, blocks people for the slightest criticism and then continues to talk at them — often through intermediaries and tag-teaming — while shutting down the opportunity to respond. Even linking to the humorous petition to send the courageous prof to defend the Kurds in a tank himself was met with pre-blocking.
“Can someone explain to that guy that it’s not NATO that’s aiding defenders of Kobane?” Graeber begged one of his wingmen. Right, it’s something he called the “coalition,” coincidentally (or not) the whitewashy, “Allies”-invoking label the US gave its partners in the invasion of Iraq.
Other voices used the same “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” argument for the same ends. Kerem Nisancioglu, yet another Occupy kiddie, issued his own condemnation of the Western left. Through successive Twitter exchanges, he also refused to come out and say what precisely he’s advocating, accused the left of denying Kurdish agency, and like Graeber, said the Kurds know better than the Western left how to “deal with” imperialism. When I pointed out recent history has shown them to actually not be able to handle the empire, the conversation ended. Malcolm Harris, known for having been arrested during Occupy, parroted the same arguments but took it into the clouds when he unironically said he thinks communism will defeat the empire in Rojava. Welp.
The argument against “helping” the Kurds by advocating US action is based in the critique of imperialism. It’s not about “purity,” but perspective. Yes, it’s very nice that the PKK are now devotees of Murray Bookchin, I guess. This is no reason to support an imperial action nominally in their favor. The empire wants the Kurds defended at this point in time and is dead-set on an apparently independent Kurdistan. Neither of those things are bad, but if Washington’s media and diplomatic assets are pulling for bombing for Kobane and a free Kurdistan, you can bet they’re not going to just set all that up and walk away, allowing Kurds to then somehow dismantle the empire. Someone who calls himself an anarchist should be suspicious of further US involvement, especially on the military front. If you’re allied with the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter and the foreign policy establishment, you may want to rethink your analysis. Or quit fronting.
Effective solutions have got to be outside of imperial action, and there may exist a potential rainbow of them outside the very narrow range of just dropping some fucking bombs. A left academia that can’t look outside the lines drawn by the ruling class is, well, even less important to a movement against war and capitalism than even I thought.
I think this tendency to so verbosely make no argument, offer no prescription, is a product of academia. Who else would spend so many words saying jack shit and think it would inspire the masses? I have to assume vagueness is hiding brand-inappropriate opinions like that the US should bomb Syria to save socialism. This is the kind of shit the left should sneer at, not debate. Three years after the destruction of Libya, you have to conclude Graeber, who supported that crime, actually agrees with US foreign policy.
The idea that Occupy didn’t have to have a specific list of demands was a good one; it was enough that people learned to protest again, that they could even simply vent their anger in a public way. But you can’t credibly make a “no demands” style of argument, even if you are a patron saint of Occupy. Especially if it serves an imperial narrative.
For the record, while the wider world may not have been aware of the Kurdish communes, plenty on the left were. In August, ROAR devoted 3300 words to the Rojava Kurds’ philosophical evolution and organizational structure. Two whole years ago, Danny Gold of Vice — read, if not loved, by many radicals — wrote all about the Kurdish popular militia known as the YPG and, interestingly, how they didn’t need anybody’s help. Graeber’s problem is, unlike the Spanish anarchists calling on his dad’s generation, many of us don’t think calling our Uncle Sam is a good solution.
The US did end up bombing more IS targets, ostensibly aiding the YPG in defense of the city of Kobane. We can’t know if the Kurds could have swung it themselves. Would their fierce sisters and brothers from Turkish and Iraqi territories have come to their aid? It seems probable, and the war ain’t won yet.
I came across this today, from March. Click the date to open the full thread.
Crabapple was the first I saw of this hanging every argument on some imperial victim’s “agency.” What’s the origin of this particular shitty tactic?
Nice one, Sassy.
I hear ya on the mixed messages these people throw off. A lot of them aim to be the political equivalent of Rohrshach ink blots. I am less inclined than you to imagine this is “probably present in all political strains” because I don’t think people who are situated well inside the margins need to be vague. These public lefts, on the other hand, are useful because they lend their left brand to things like imperialism, but to be too emphatic on the point compromises the leftishness that makes them useful to begin with. As an ostensible anarchist whose politics seem more defined than, say, Crabapple’s, Graeber’s got his work cut for him, and he’s really not very good at it.
If he’s attempting to pull a Greenwald, it doesn’t seem to be working. Disliking him seems far less hazardous. It’s even popular. But then imperialism’s harder to sell. First Look leaves that to the second string and then Greenwald boosts the signal, after wringing his hands over drones or whatever.
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I think you’re spot on pinning this on academia. Someone like Graeber is asshole-deep in a system that rewards vagueness – because taking a strong position on something, ANYTHING, has a lot of risks to it. (This isn’t a defense of Graeber though). I don’t remember if Graebs is tenured or not, but I’d especially not be surprised if he *is* tenured for him to make these open-ended arguments. In my experience the only academics that will even *attempt* to take a firm position are those that are hungry enough that they have nothing to lose – you might risk not getting tenured by being spectacularly wrong on any given position- but you all but guarantee yourself not being tenured if you don’t take *any* position. Tenure on the other hand is much more about building on existing brand, and that’s much easier to do if you’re vague enough to weasel out of any objections.
Just in general though, academia encourages this kind of shit. He’s written Debt which was lauded by a huge variety of people (including me) – so he now can rest on those laurels and make wishy-washy bullshit statements about foreign policy to his hearts content. So long as he doesn’t come down too firmly on any one point, he has an easy retreat and thus no worries about the call-outs.
Good stuff man.
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I’m gonna have to with a heart full of love, disagree with yinz and say that I don’t think Graeber was all that vague, though most of the time he enunciated his position in installments and by implication. But in the Guardian comments for his article, he was quite clear, and I don’t think any of this contradicts what he was saying on Twitter:
This is about as unambiguous a call for air strikes as one can make, but he’s doing the new lefty imperialist thing of leaving the decision to the people over there whose interests just happen to line up with US military objectives. It’s a position from which you can browbeat anti-imperialists with talk of “denying agency” and not caring what “dark people” think, as Graeber did for several days. It’s a position in which those who refuse to make common cause with imperialism — incredibly, for ostensible anti-imperialist ends — are the *real* imperialists. Graeber states this outright further on in his comment.
When he attacked you for your “moral purity”, he was attacking your traditional anti-imperialism, not your interpretation of his remarks.
I agree what he’s doing won’t “inspire the masses”, but that’s not what it’s intended to do. It’s aimed at the left, particularly anarchists, and a number of them did line up to support him in “tag-teaming”. I don’t think entirely inverting the meaning of “imperialism” and “anti-imperialism” and getting at least some of the comrades lined up behind it is “jack shit”, though it’s certainly pernicious.
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My last comment suggested more disagreement than there is. I think we pretty much see him the same way — we both think he supports US military involvement — and you argue accordingly. But I see him as more sophisticated and calculating than wishy washy. Fortunately he’s undermined somewhat by being a thin-skinned asshole. People don’t find that cute and cuddly in him the way they do in other Celebrity Lefts.
Graeber has mostly used very ambiguous language even if it’s clear what he’s actually arguing. I should have noted that anti-imperialism = imperialism bit, I had been thinking about it when I started.
I simply don’t agree. I think he’s been clear all along that lefts should defer to the local revolutionaries. He may have been occasionally vague on what they want, but he’s been clear on our obligation to defer to them. There is nothing ambiguous about his comments in the Guardian, and he made the point several times.
This equating agency with U.S. involvement via requests from local elements is something we keep hearing. It’s a talking point. We heard it about Ukraine, we heard it from Crabapple and now we’re hearing it from Graeber. You don’t turn anti-imperialism into imperialism by being wishy-washy. You do it with calculatedly manipulative rhetoric.
I guess we disagree on whether or not that is ambiguous. It’s adding in an extra step which, yeah, we can just cut through but then he’ll go on twitter and say “I’m not for bombing, just listening to the revolutionaries” and other circular garbage. I actually had not seen his Guardian comments, though. They’re sorta buried there and I think consequently more direct.
I’m gonna walk my original comment back a little. You’re right, there is something deliberately ambiguous about segmenting the more general call for support in the Guardian essay from the more explicit call for airstrikes down in comments. Finding out what he *really* thought in concrete terms was sort of an Easter egg hunt. But I also think there were fairly obvious inferences to be made from all his Twitter sneering at anti-imperialist ‘purism’ and it did seem that most people, including you, argued with him as if they understood what he was implying. Nonetheless, requiring people to make inferences, even obvious ones, is still somewhat evasive. So I’ll mostly concede that he was vague, content to differ on how much so. I think if these clowns weren’t always so weirdly evasive, dishonest and generally dickish, I doubt if I’d disagreed with you. I am far too accustomed to how bizarrely these assholes communicate.
After watching Battle of Chile and being struck by how *smart* people seem to become when the blinders come off en masse, I resent these anointed public left clowns all the more. Regardless of what their own motives are, their function is to create confusion and elicit compliance.
Ugh. That Crapple thread. These people are so consistently awful and all in the same ways. The preening self-regard. The sneering at radicals. The complete unwillingness to engage on a question in good faith. “Up against the brocade wall.” For her ‘nuance’ and absolutely delightful sense of humor. Yuuuuuck.
I am starting to see a #NotAllFascists pattern here with The Celebrity Left. The thing about Ukraine is, I don’t think you can defend that coup on the grounds of ‘agency’ even if you take the fascists out of it entirely. The fascists just make it particularly indefensible.