Friday, April 21, 2006

Fisk, Chomsky & Leftist Self-deception - part 1 (E)

The Independent’s star writer Robert Fisk received an honorary Phd from the University of Ghent last March. (His keynote speech is available here in two parts.) The Phd was awarded by the Department of Communication and the post-graduate program in Journalism.
It is safe to say that Mr. Fisk preached to the converted as he presented his lecture. He enjoyed the full freedom to reinforce his political positions and ideological choices, and did not miss an opportunity to do exactly that. To a cheering audience. Listening to Mr. Fisk’s speech, it makes one wonder whether the degree was issued because of the quality of his writing, or rather because it made the Left feel good about themselves...

If Mr. Fisk perhaps felt the need to counterbalance the overtly neo-con bias in much ‘embedded’ journalism today, I feel the need to compensate for the lack of critical reflection in much of the Left’s public discourse. In that respect, it’s appropriate to quote Nick Cohen in the Guardian :
“The past 20 years have witnessed the collapse of communism, the triumph of US capitalism and the recognition of the awkward fact that many Third World revolutions are powered by a religious fundamentalism so strange the traditional Left can't look it in the eye. The result of the corruption of defeat is an opposition to whatever America does; a looking-glass politics where hypocrisies of power are matched by equal hypocrisies in the opposite direction.”
Cohen makes his point with regard to Noam Chomsky’s ‘Hegemony of Survival’ (Henry Holt, 2003/2004) (full review here), but there are others. In their latest collection of thoughts and exchanges called ‘Les Battements du monde. Dialogue’ (Pauvert, 2003) Peter Sloterdijk and Alain Finkielkraut ponder over the complexities of a Europe that has lost its virility (in reply to Robert Kagan’s famous ‘Power and Weakness’, Policy Review, June 2002). In short, a number of authors find a tendency on the Left to not take responsability and blame their defeat on whoever came out on top. In the present case : the no-brain-all-muscle Americans... I leave it to the reader to go into psychoanalytical pirouettes on what constitutes ‘Le Mâle’, but I offer some points against the easy America-bashing that’s so rampant today.

Unilateralism ?

To maintain that the US has spent the last 50 years trying to occupy the lone throne over the peoples of the earth – as Chomsky does in his aforementioned book – and has implemented a strictly unilateralist policy to that effect, is to state that myopia equals 20/20 vision. What about the Cold War then, and the balance of power that was aimed for by the superpowers ? Reducing the active development of a realist security policy based on transnational institutions such as the UN and the Bretton Woods organisations on the one hand, and the sovereignty principle linked to the right of defense/security on the other, to the paranoid power hunger of one chief player, suggests that the Soviet Union, communist China or even the Latin-American liberation movements of the time were nothing but imaginary antagonists. So America is the raving lunatic, while all others are meek sheep...? I’m frankly having trouble getting my mind around this reductionist bend. The debate about America’s geopolitical behaviour is probably better served by adding some complexity to the analysis. A few traits of the American historical awareness are important in that respect :
idealism : most probably, the US hegemony after the collapse of the Soviet block has strengthened the States in their conviction – justly or unjustly – that they are indeed an historical vanguard. As such, the rhetoric of being the ‘guard and keeper’ of the free spirit can be understood as the genuine belief in the exceptionalism of the American way of life. Such millenarianism America shares with many of its current critics and opponents, political islamists especially. (Was it really a suprise to hear Bin Laden cum sui wish for the re-election of George W. ?). So this trait, if applicable, frees the debate from its present victor/victim mode and recasts it in the mold of horn-locked griffins. The world is witnessing not just blank power play, but the clash of principled absolutism. Both defenders are then to be held accountable.
isolationism : ‘expansion’ and ‘imperialism’ can be read as the flip side of the isolationism that is characteristic of the American mind. Any perceived threat to independence and self-determination is to be countered by seduction (capitalism, popular culture) or threat (military). Within the scope of a globalised community, such countermeasures will necessarily be multiple, ubiquitous and extensive. Taking the ‘isolationist’ strain into account, America’s behaviour should then be seen as tragic rather than imperialistic. The more it expands, the more it is insecure. Such is the paradox of its present condition : America is all entangled but has nowhere to go. Those of us who understand a beast thus trapped will start kicking its hooves wildly, will offer guarantees and find ways to engage constructively. Antagonism will merely confirm the inherent paranoia.
functionalism : throughout its cultural history, America has displayed an uncanny talent for adaptation and reshuffling. That mythical ‘American Dream’ is a project that is open for continuous reformulation according to the changing conditions. This talent requires the absolute freedom to act as is befitting, which in turn probably helps explain the idiosyncratic sensitivity to all forms of collectivism that so marks America’s posture on the world stage. This – to be clear – does NOT absolve the US from its responsabilities vis-à-vis other nations and cultures, but it does shed light on their ad hoc approach to matters such as international law, environmental politics and transnationalist policy bodies. To my mind, the US walks a very thin line there, but rather than whipping it off the rope altogether it should be helped in the balancing act. I maintain the belief that Americans will acknowledge any paralleled display of inventiveness and pro-active creativity in formulating win-win options, as it is the core of their business.
Putting two and two together, the apparent unilateralism reveals itself to be a multi-facetted expression of a complex political psychology. Narrowing all of that down to mere imperialism is counterproductive with regard to the strategies that might convince the US to start taking some problems into serious consideration (and vote differently next time !).

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