Hold It All

Category: Power and Ideology

Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

The following is from a 1983 interview with MIT professor Noam Chomsky…

Interviewer: If you were to wake up tomorrow morning, and find yourself at the State Department, not MIT, and you were Secretary, what initiative would you take?

Noam Chomsky: First of all, I’d move towards a genuine disarmament, because I think  the current technical programs that the UnitedStates is pursuing are probably a greater danger to the United States than the policies of any of its enemies. Our new nuclear systems, the MX missile and the Pershing, are probably going to drive the Russians to some kind of launch-on-warning strategy which almost guarantees the destruction of the  United States sooner or later. The first thing I’d do is abort these programs and move toward some genuine disarmament. The  I would move at once to put an end to the American policy of supporting various neo-Nazi monsters all over the world, particularly in Central America,  which is the most striking case, and in other regions. As far as the Middle East is concerned, I’d move toward the international consensus.

However, though I could add a whole range of other policies, I should add this qualification: I couldn’t do any of these things. The fact is that the constraints of parameters within which any policy-maker operates are rather narrow, and they’re set from the outside, they’re set by real interests. The real interests in society are those of the people who own it. Objective power lies elsewhere. Decision-making power does not lie in the political sphere.

Language and Politics, p. 358

The Battle of the Gods

Zainab al-Ghazali, Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison
Translated by  Mokrane Guezzou

Our goal is reformation and not sabotage, edification not destruction. 
Zainab al-Ghazali

Nawal el-Saadawi may have met her match in Zainab al-Ghazali when it comes to vigorous struggle and determination.  I wonder what they thought of each other.

This memoir is  a harrowing read, a riveting and disturbing account of how she was arrested and tortured under the reign of Nasir.  It’s easy to compare the plight of the Muslim Brotherhood then with that of the liberation theology church of El Salvador:  The Leader is the Pharaoh and the National Security State is an idol, too.

Al-Ghazali is a faithful Muslim, committed to Da’wah and her work with Muslim Ladies Group  and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why she is a threat to the secular-oriented nationalism of Nasir. Here’s her vision:  “Strive for the establishment of a state ruled by divine law” [Xxv]; “The supremacy of Shariah to be established” [1]  “…Islam is a complete way of life …” [41]; “‘My son, we are calling people to Allah and want Islam’s rule for this country. Don’t misunderstand, for we don’t want power for ourselves.’” [96]  “‘Islam is justice, light and mercy. In Islam there are no whips, no killings, no torture, prisons, expulsions, burying of people alive, nor tearing bodies apart. There is no displacement of children, widowing of women, pharaohs or idol-worship. In Islam, there is nothing but truth and justice, a word is confronted with a word and an argument with an argument.’” [134]

While in jail, she undergoes horrific tortures, the floggings, the water technique, the dogs.  What her captors want her to do is submit to them, be selfish, save her own skin, and forget everybody else (they plan to have men rape her, but she bites one of them). They try to instill the greatest fear in her but she has deep faith in Allah.  They ask her ridiculous questions like: ‘Why do you do all this harm to yourself?’ [72]  One captor, Shams, has as his aim: to get Muslims to abandon their religion. [87] They try to bribe her by offering her a post of high status, funds for the work and magazine. She resolutely refuses.  She’s sassy, given to mockery, fierce in her faith, as when she asks: “What about these whips, prosecuting attorney, are they from the law school curriculum?” [63] Read the rest of this entry »

The Prophetic, the Socratic, and the Democratic

Cornel West, Democracy Matters:  Winning the Fight against Imperialism


Pat Geier, a dear friend in Louisville, once told me of one of her favorite adages that dated back to the civil right movement: “If you see a good fight, get in it!”  In his latest book, Democracy Matters, Cornel West, a professor of religion and philosophy at Princeton University, is calling on Americans to get in a good fight:  To save democracy in the United States and to resist the empire of the United States.  West may be criticized for preaching to the choir, but there are times like this past week, with the inauguration of George W. Bush, that “the choir” itself may need to be succored, exhorted and challenged.  West offers hopeful reminders, passionate summonses, and critical analysis.

West identifies three grave threats to democracy in the United States.  First is a free-market fundamentalism, in which the market is our reigning idol, before which we must bow, with all other human values and considerations (like that old Catholic teaching of the common good) deemed irrelevant.  It is just such fundamentalism that the global justice movement against corporate globalization seeks to delegitimize. Second, West notes an aggressive militarism that bodes ill for democratic prospects in our country.  Daily, we see the costs of this aggression in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, most recently in the destruction of Fallujah.  But just last week, Seymour Hersh published  an article in the New Yorker reviewing the serious attention the U.S. is giving to going after Iran next.  A third danger to our democratic values is what West terms an escalating authoritarianism, which, in the context of the supposed decades-long war on terrorism, results such perilous measures as the Patriot Act.   Read the rest of this entry »

Countering Chaos

Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip through Political Scandal, Corruption, and American Culture
Verso, 2013

Daisy Cockburn: When I was a teenager my father used to suggest I read the dictionary when I had a spare minute, or if I was feeling a bit down. His own father Claud had recommended a dip into Marx if darkness descended. The point being made was a reminder not to collapse, to find meaning, counter chaos with spirited punches—get to the root of things and then improvise, blow your trumpet from there. 571

These words by Alex Cockburn’s daughter are at the end of the magnificent volume of his writings from 1995 to 2012. Rereading him in the time of descending darkness during COVID-19, I return to the following passages to find meaning and counter chaos for purposes of necessary improvising….

Boyd had that rare talent: relentless intellectual focus on the task at hand. To hear him dissect tactics employed at the battle of Leuctra, when the Thebans beat the Spartans in 371 BC, was as overwhelming as to hear him discuss the relevance of Gödel, Heisenberg and the Second Law of thermodynamics to human behavior. Beyond all that, Boyd was an honest, modest, populist who never lost his humanity amid a life devoted to the consideration of war. 80

Like Greece, the strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement lies in the simplicity and truth of its basic message: the few are rich, the many are poor. In terms of its pretensions the capitalist system has failed. Nearly six million manufacturing jobs in the United States have disappeared since 2000, and more than 40,000 factories have closed. African-Americans have endured what has been described as the greatest loss of collective assets in their history. Hispanics have seen their net worth drop by two-thirds. Millions of whites have been pitchforked into penury and desperation. 515 Read the rest of this entry »

Act Two by Andrew Wimmer

My friend Andrew Wimmer emailed the following to some of us, and gave me permission to share here…
In May 2016, Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker:

“There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word ‘fascist.’ …his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’… The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history.” (Adam Gopnik, “Going There With Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2016) Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Footnotes


My idea of the ideal text is still the Talmud. I love the idea of parallel texts, with long, discursive footnotes and marginal commentary, texts commenting on texts.

–Noam Chomsky, Mother Jones interview, 1987


Text from Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, p. 386 (South End Press, 1983):

[On the Sabra-Shatila massacres] There was also a reaction from Elie Wiesel, who is much revered internationally and in the United States for his writings on the Holocaust and on moral standards and has been proposed many times for the Nobel Peace Prize for these writings, again for 1983, by half the members of Congress according to the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.* Read the rest of this entry »

The Goal Is Justice, the Method Is Transparency

For those who would like to know a little more about  the issues surrounding Julian Assange and Wikileaks, please take two minutes to read and ponder the following passages from Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler’s new book, In Defense of Julian Assange (OR Books, 2019).

Providing information to the citizens of this world has become a dangerous act, but it cannot be stopped, as every authoritarian regime understands. The courageous people who provide this information must be protected.  —Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler, xxvii 

I posed the question of what the most positive trajectory for the future would look like. Self-knowledge, diversity, and networks of self-determination.  A highly educated global population—I do not mean formal education, but highly educated in their understanding of how human civilization works at the political, industrial, scientific and psychological levels—as a result of the free exchange of communication, also stimulating vibrant new cultures and the maximal diversification of individual thought, increased regional self-determination, and the self-determination of interest groups that are able to network quickly and exchange value rapidly over geographic boundaries. —Julian Assange,  212

[Julian] Assange’s agenda is infinitely more noble and infinitely more reviled by the servants of power: to upset the status quo that demands war, corruption, and oppression in order to exist.—Caitlin Johnstone, 195 

As founder and editor of WikiLeaks, [Assange’s] crime has been to make sense of dark times. WikiLeaks has an impeccable record of accuracy and authenticity which no newspaper, no TV channel, no radio station, no BBC, no New York Times, no Washington Post, no Guardian can equal. Indeed, it shames them. That explains why he is being punished.—John Pilger  151 Read the rest of this entry »

For So They Treated the Prophets…

Here’s Noam Chomsky–True prophets like Amos — “dissident intellectuals,” in modern terminology — offered both elevated moral lessons, which the people in power weren’t fond of, and geopolitical analyses that usually turned out to be pretty accurate, which the people in power were even less fond of. Naturally, the true prophets were despised, imprisoned, driven into the desert. The public also hated the true prophets — they didn’t want to hear the truth either. Not because they were bad people, but for all the usual reasons — short-term interest, manipulation, dependence on power.

Julian Assange has been despised, imprisoned, driven into extreme isolation; according to Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: ‘we all came to the conclusion that he showed all the symptoms that are typical for a person that has been exposed to psychological torture over an extended period of time.’

One of the reasons he and Wikileaks are so hated by the devotees of the war-making state is the release of such material as this on Collateral Murder.



What a Joy to Run the World!

When corporate-endowed foundations first made their appearance in the United States, there was a fierce debate about their provenance, legality, and lack of accountability. People suggested that if companies had so much surplus money, they should raise the wages of their workers. (People made these outrageous suggestions in those days, even in America.) The idea of these foundations, so ordinary now, was in fact a leap of the business imagination. Non-tax-paying legal entities with massive resources and an almost unlimited brief—wholly unaccountable, wholly nontransparent— what better way to parlay economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital, to turn money into power? What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world? How else would Bill Gates, who admittedly knows a thing or two about computers, find himself designing education, health, and agriculture policies, not just for the US government but for governments all over the world?

Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story


Remembering Alexander Cockburn

Dear Andrew,

You and I make frequent reference these delirious days to Alexander Cockburn, who published us in his Counterpunch website back during both the Bush and Obama administrations. A while ago I reread his glorious book, The Golden Age Is in Us: Journeys & Encounters 1987-1994, and I am happy to share with you several passages that reveal the man. He is missed.

Take a Look!


So the Golden Age is subversive and it’s fun, which means that for us on the left, it should be our goal and sales pitch. People love utopias that make sense….There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think.

It would take the pen of Swift to evoke the nauseating scenes of hypocrisy, bad faith and self-delusion on the White House lawn on September 13, crammed as it was with people who for long years were complicit in the butchery and torture of Palestinians and the denial of their rights, now applauding the “symbolic handshake” that in fact ratified further abnegation of those same rights…. In the shadow of an American President with the poise and verbiage of the manager of a McDonald’s franchise, Arafat produced oratory so meager it made Rabin sound like Cicero. To think that long years of struggle and U.N. resolutions acknowledging Palestinian claims should end with this pathetic fellow shouting thank you to his suzerains.

The wars in Korea and Vietnam were not byproducts of superpower rivalry. In both instances the United States wanted to crush indigenous revolution. Read the rest of this entry »