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Monday, April 22, 2019


I promised I would write about impeachment, and I will, but first I would like to take a few moments to write about something that has long puzzled me, and which I think perhaps I now understand.  It is this:  Even in places like this blog, where almost everyone who comments is pretty much left of center, if not off in the weeds with me, whenever I or someone else says, for example, that it is a bad thing for the Russians to attempt to muck in our elections, there are readers who immediately and reflexively list some of the many ways in which America meddles in the internal affairs of other nations, up to and including overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing a friendly puppet, as in Iran.

Why do they do that?  Are they suggesting that because America does it, it is all right for Russia to do it?  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.  I don’t think they believe that America’s doing something makes it right, as though America were the moral exemplar for humanity.  Do they think this blog is read by true blue patriots who believe that America is a Beacon of Freedom, a City Shining on a Hill?  That seems implausible.  Do they perhaps think that I myself have bought into the standard story that America was founded on the Idea of Freedom and has been steadily bringing its public actions into conformity with that idea for two hundred years?  I will do them the courtesy of assuming they know that I wrote a whole book attacking that myth.

So why do they do it?  Here is what I think.  Living in a country whose politicians, public intellectuals, scholars, pontificators and bloviators all accept and endlessly repeat these smug, self-congratulatory, manifestly false myths drives some people a little crazy.  It causes them such mental pain that it is as though they were condemned to a level of Hell inhabited by demons who spend all their time scraping their fingernails across slate blackboards.  They are in a perpetual fury, and simply cannot control themselves when they hear something that sounds as though it were yet another knee-jerk praise of America, regardless of who is speaking or writing.

Now, I understand what it is like to suffer from this condition.  Its symptoms first appeared in me sixty years ago, and in one early attack of the fever, triggered by an agitated, fruitless argument about nuclear weapons with a young Zbigniev Bzrezinski, I wigged out, had an anxiety attack, and came to running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square sweating profusely.  Several Valium and a retreat into the higher reaches of pure theory were required to reclaim my equanimity.  One of the indirect consequences of that attack was In Defense of Anarchism.

So I am going to ask a favor.  Would those of you afflicted with this entirely understandable disorder just assume that in this space, all of that may be taken as given?

Thank you.


Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
I think your diagnosis is spot on, and I'll be the first to admit that *much* of my responses do stem from a deep seated tedious sickness when hearing the bloviating call of American patriotism. There is however, one other reason for *my* responses. Whether it is a more prominent psychological catalyst, or less than your diagnosis, I am unsure.

We have all already discussed our agreements and disagreements with Chomksy and you and I are on the same page regarding his philosophy, approach to politics, and style of presentation. Nevertheless, I accept wholeheartedly some of his basic moralizing (basically truisms in moral philosophy). Should implies can. The things I can impact, and therefore possibly should impact, are crimes and machinations by my own government, since I'm part and parcel to them to varying degrees. There's literally nothing I can do about women being oppressed in Saudi Arabi, even if I agree that they are oppressed and it needs to end. Similarly, Russian influence in most elections, or really just about anything 'Russian', is outside the scope of my moral agency. Now, voting for more democratic and secure elections, which will as a secondary effect mitigate Russian influence, is something I can and should participate in, and do to the best of my ability. So when I hear, per usual, 99% of the news condemning X country for not being Utopia, it's hard not to 1) tamper my tedious sickness and shout back, but also 2) revert to the moral issues I can address, and semi tune out of the ones entirely outside my agency.

WLGR said...

I think it's a mistake to read the invocations of US imperialism in response to Russiagate as a simple knee-jerk appeal to consistency against US jingoistic hypocrisy, although of course this is inevitably part of the ideological subtext whenever a US leftist discusses Russiagate in skeptical terms, in the same way that true-blue American patriotism is also inevitably part of the ideological subtext whenever anyone in the US discusses Russiagate at all.

A better reading would be that these invocations are framing Russiagate as a case of blowback, not just from the US committing this kind of geopolitical meddling itself, but from the US openly striving to legitimize these kinds of meddling tactics as a positive good, as long as they're accompanied by even the tiniest rhetorical fig leaf of freedom, democracy, development, human rights, and so on. In that sense, "physician heal thyself" isn't necessarily just an abstract rhetorical appeal to the virtue of consistency, it might also be a purely practical concern that the diseased physician is the one spreading the contagion throughout the hospital. (Also, certain sectors of the US left are far from clean-handed on this; just look at the respect still afforded to a figure like Gene Sharp in plenty of "anti-authoritarian" movement circles, despite the prominent and well-documented place of Sharp's "color revolution" apparatus in the constellation of Russiagate-style US geopolitical meddling tools.)

And of course another potential reading would be to answer your final question with a firm no, on the basis that in the present-day US liberal ideological climate, any prolonged sympathetic engagement with liberal Russiagate rhetoric makes it extremely difficult to avoid backsliding into the tropes of true-blue US patriotism, whether or not the person engaging with it necessarily intends to or not. For example, why should a leftist like you who doesn't buy into true-blue US patriotism feel any particularly deep investment in the sanctity of (as you put it) "our elections"? From a vulgar internationalist perspective, US elections are no more "our" elections than UK or Slovenian or Zimbabwean or Venezuelan or Russian elections are "our" elections — and from a slightly more fleshed-out internationalist perspective, it's not inherently illegitimate that every single one of the 7 billion or so people on Earth should feel entitled to have a say in US elections, since for many people outside the US, the outcome of US elections might easily have more practical sway over their political horizons than the outcome of "their own" elections. In that light, it makes little sense to claim that the current liberal panic over Russian meddling in US elections is a flawed but ultimately necessary step toward the worthy goal of closing off US elections from foreign influence; on the contrary, one might more easily claim that Russian meddling in US elections is itself a flawed but ultimately necessary step toward the worthy goal of opening up US elections to foreign influence.

I'm not necessarily saying I buy that last argument myself, especially insofar as it would depend on the modern US-created reactionary Russian capitalist state to play a profoundly progressive role in international geopolitics. What I'm saying is that neither argument should be particularly hard to conceive of from an internationalist perspective, and when someone with a leftist internationalist history as deep as yours admits to having trouble sussing these arguments out, it only strengthens my suspicion that engaging too deeply with US liberal Russiagate rhetoric is more corrosive to one's anti-jingoistic instincts than you seem to think.

Anonymous said...

It may be rational but not moral to meddle in foreign affairs, but insist that it is immoral for other states to meddle in our affairs. In any case the more detailed and profoundly brilliant the analysis, the more one's eyes glaze over.

ES said...

I recommend this series of videos on right-wing rhetorical strategies:

LFC said...

A problem with opening up U.S. elections to foreign influence is that, as WLGR seems to realize, there's probably no way to limit the influencers to those who play progressive roles in geopolitics (whoever one's candidates for that label might be).

The choice, in more practical terms, is between opening up U.S. elections to influence from whatever foreign governments have the money and will to hire U.S.-based law firms and lobbying and PR firms, on one hand, and on the other hand, trying to close off U.S. elections from as much foreign influence as possible. On that choice, I'll take the second.

Foreign governments already have, in general, too much influence on the U.S. policy-making and legislative process, esp. because it tends to be those govts with the resources to hire U.S. firms to represent their interests (whether the latter cross the "t"s by registering under the Foreign Agent Registration Act or not).

So given the current set-up and balance of forces, so to speak, I don't think opening up U.S. elections to more foreign influence is a very good idea.

Richard Lewis said...

I think the main problem I have is causal not normative. In other words there is a causal connection between American meddling and Russian meddling. We meddled in Ukraine, and as blowback the Russians meddled with us. This is elementary Realism 101. I think the frustration (for me at least) is not so much a sign of 'beautiful soul' moralism (which is how Chomsky sometimes sounds) but that liberals simply ignore the causality of actions. If we meddle in Russia's near abroad there will be consequences. The morality is beside the point.

WLGR said...

The problem with your stance, LFC, is that it hinges on a classic right-wing or dare I say Trumpian ideological maneuver, taking a problem that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with ethnonational boundaries (such as the corrupting influence of powerful moneyed interests in electoral politics) and depicting it as a problem with pronouncedly foreign characteristics, a problem in which the central conflict in some sense is between that which is good and domestic, versus that which is bad and foreign. The more ubiquitous this maneuver becomes in the age of Trump, the more the overall political space will be consumed by jingoism and xenophobia, particularly if liberals insist on funneling their anti-Trump "resistance" through it too.

Of course though, that argument itself is somewhat beside the central point I was trying to make: namely, whether or not one accepts that argument or any other specific leftist Russiagate-skeptical critique, Prof. Wolff's professed difficulty in even fathoming the possible position of leftist Russiagate skeptics is disappointingly myopic for someone with such a rich and wide-ranging background in radical leftist philosophy, and I can't help but suspect that spending so much mental energy in the narrow, ten-minute-news-cycle-dopamine-rush ideological universe of centrist liberal Russiagate obsessives might be a contributing factor to this myopia.

Anonymous said...

Russia is probably always up to this stuff—and they should be. And why not? They see us as an adversary, and accordingly want to cause trouble for us. Big deal; we can handle it. Putin has never thought that the Cold War was over. And neither do I. What Russia did, and does, and will do again, is propaganda. We may as well accept that and deal with it appropriately: call it lies, try to make the Russians look bad, and so on. There are no (nuclear) sticks and stones here; just words, and they won’t hurt us, unless we’re stupid—or get sold out by traitors who can make the Russian line plausible when it’s given credit by parts of our news media and by American politicians. That’s the only big deal here: that Trump and his entourage were willing to play along with what they had to know was a propaganda effort by one of our two serious national adversaries (who are capable of doing us mortal harm, though not quite on a scale of the harm that we’re capable of doing to them). And then the right-wing news media in the US went along with this—and so did and does the Republican Party. This sell-out is the single worst thing is this whole shoddy affair. And for their complicity in it, Trump and his bunch, his scribbling lackeys at Fox News and their ilk, and the Republicans in general ought to be held to account. Trump and the rest were willing propaganda tools for Russia. And they’re trying to cover it up. The Democrats need to hammer on that. --Fritz Poebel

LFC said...

I think this might be the first time I've been accused of a "classic right-wing ideological maneuver."

I agree that domestic moneyed interests exercise an excessive, often corrupting influence in electoral politics. So it's not that domestic moneyed interests are "good" and foreign moneyed interests are "bad" -- at least, I did not intend to say that, and I did not.

The point I was trying to make is that I am not comfortable with, and do not favor facilitating, the government of Saudi Arabia, or that of Israel, or that of South Korea, or that of Russia, or that of virtually any country for that matter, exercising an influence on U.S. elections. It is not "progressive" or "cosmopolitan" or "internationalist" to suggest that U.S. elections should be opened, systematically or otherwise, to this kind of influence. Governments are not "peoples," they tend to mainly represent and be composed of elites (there may be a few exceptions), and you know as well as I do that when the government of Saudi Arabia or that of Ukraine or that of Russia, for instance, hires a lobbying/law firm in the U.S., it is not because those govts are consumed by concern for the plight of oppressed and impoverished individuals, refugees, the most vulnerable, etc., any more than the Koch brothers are or the right-wing money machine is. The activities of the latter don't somehow excuse those of the former.

I am not in the camp of the Russiagate "obsessives" or that of the "skeptics." I think it's clear that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections, whether for "realist" reasons or others, though I don't know whether that meddling affected the outcome (it's possible, given the small margin of T's victory, but I don't know and perhaps it had no decisive effect).
I have no present intention of reading the Mueller report and I'm inclined to think that impeachment would be an unwise diversion of political energy.

In sum, I'm not quite as leftist as you, WLGR, but I am as "internationalist" in at least some significant ways, and I find your suggestion that I adopted a xenophobia-enabling or xenophobia-reflecting, domestic-good, foreign-bad stance to be either a willful misrepresentation or, more likely, a rather ludicrous misinterpretation.

(As for Pr. Wolff's alleged myopia and its sources, I'll let him address that.)

TheDudeDiogenes said...

So, now both Harris and Warren have called for Trump to be impeached. I'm not saying that I think that Trump doesn't deserve to be impeached, but I remain skeptical of the idea that pursuing impeachment is wise.

WLGR said...

LFC, if this is the first time you as a liberal have been accused of a right-wing ideological maneuver, you should talk to more leftists, because we accuse liberals of behaving in right-wing ways and echoing right-wing ideology all the time! If you want a leftist reading recommendation along these lines, one of the many I could give you is an excellent book called "The Poverty of Liberalism" by a figure called Robert Paul Wolff.

I'll take at face value that we both consider ourselves internationalists and oppose the xenophobic notion of "domestic good, foreign bad," in which case presumably we both know what we're up against in the United States, a hegemonic nationalist ideology in which many if not most people see the boundaries of this nation-state as corresponding in some sense with the boundaries of their political and moral concern, in which appeals to the unity and common interest of all Americans (even including wealthy elites) are a banal commonplace, and in which depicting something as foreign to America is an easy way to fast-track many people into rejecting it out of hand. It should go without saying that Trump and his rhetoric can't be understood or dealt with if we don't understand and deal with this underlying ideological context, which is why I find it so distressing that so much purported anti-Trumpism has been funneled through narratives and tactics that at best fail to grapple with any of this, and at worst openly lean on nationalist tropes scarcely distinguishable from those of Trumpism, including some directly inherited from Trump's Reagan-era far-right nationalist predecessors.

Now you can easily argue that there's substance to this Russiagate stuff irrespective of how it plays into US nationalist ideology, and I'm not inherently discounting that possibility, nor have most of the leftist Russiagate skeptics I'm aware of. (Although again, I think the key context has little to do with grand Russian geopolitical machinations: Trump was a sleazy New York real estate mogul with a largely undeserved "big successful rich business guy" public image constructed through symbiotic relationships with media outlets like NBC and CBS, who decided to play the distinctly modern and American game of using a failed presidential candidacy to expand his mass media profile, and spent much of 2016 laying preliminary groundwork for all kinds of new business ventures, possibly including future sleazy real estate deals in places like Russia, on the assumption that he was going to lose.) That said, given that US nationalist ideology is central to what's dangerous about the politics Trump represents, ignoring or downplaying the ways in which Russiagate plays into US nationalist ideology seems flagrantly irresponsible, and liable to do more harm than good even in a best-case scenario where it leads to Trump being run out of DC on a rail tomorrow.

And even that charitably assumes the best-case scenario for Russiagate, while a worst-case scenario would be that liberals' focus on Russiagate ends up accomplishing essentially nothing, sucks a good deal of oxygen away from articulating more substantive left-liberal policy priorities in opposition to Trump, and maybe even directly contributes to Trump winning re-election in 2020, by allowing him to downplay substantive policy issues (by far his weakest area) and focus instead on procedural news-cycle melodrama (by far his strongest area) with a message of the sinister liberal political/media establishment being out to get him through devious institutional witch hunts. Given that the establishment Democrats currently putting their chips on Russiagate are the same people who misfired so badly on how to defeat Trump back in 2016, which scenario do you find more plausible?

Danny said...

'there are readers who immediately and reflexively list some of the many ways in which America meddles in the internal affairs of other nations .. Why do they do that?'

It's an informal logical fallacy, a red herring. So is all of your psychoanalysis. If avoiding logical fallacies is the solution, then we are screwed.

Danny said...

'I will do them the courtesy of assuming they know that I wrote a whole book'

no comment.