How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.

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Je Suis Charlie: “What’s Left?” March 2015, MRR #382

I woke up on Thursday morning, January 8, to learn of the massacre of twelve French individuals at the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, by two other French nationals, Muslims who claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This Al Qaeda affiliate which operates primarily in Yemen acknowledged that it had directed the Paris attack “as revenge for the honor” of the long-dead Prophet Muhammad, who had supposedly been blasphemed by the bandes dessinées of Charlie’s four famous cartoonists. Right away, I noticed that virtually all of the online stories and posts covering the bloody assault from major media outlets featured a video of the two masked gunmen fleeing their strike that looked severely edited. When I tracked down the original, full version of that video, it showed what was missing: the escaping gunmen wounding an unarmed policeman on the sidewalk outside Charlie Hebdo, then circling back to dispatch the policeman with a shot to the head as he lie begging for mercy.

This was just the most obvious example of media self-censorship in this incident, an act of squeamishness made more ironic by being contrasted in my mind to the regular cop-heavy American TV fare with its colossal—if fictitious—graphic body counts. Add to this the media outcry over the attack on “freedom of expression” that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is assumed to represent and the irony is complete.

Emily Greenhouse commented in Bloomberg (“What’s at stake in Europe’s response to Charlie Hebdo,” 1/8/15) on the “complicated cultural realities” across the continent as illustrated by France. Home to the largest Jewish minority in Europe, France also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. So, while French president Hollande proclaimed a nationwide battle against racism and anti-semitism in 2015, “[f]or all of France’s fine political abstractions, ethnic identity is inescapable. Everyone is obsessed with where everyone else comes from. The French government tells itself that it doesn’t ‘see’ or recognize race, so racism is impossible—but those are just words.” Holocaust denial, as well as overt anti-semitic hate speech, is illegal in France as well as the rest of western Europe, but this is not the case with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate speech. Using the case of the French government’s political harassment of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala to illustrate the larger issue, Greenhouse writes: “It might upset some people that Dieudonné’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Jews—is illegal, while Charlie Hebdo’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Muslims—is not.”

Charlie Hebdo itself exemplified this contradiction by, on the one hand, firing a cartoonist in 2008 for making illegal anti-semitic comments while, on the other hand, regularly printing perfectly legal, nasty anti-Muslim cartoons. Jordan Weissman argued in Slate: “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. […] We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it.” Free speech absolutist Glenn Greenwald goes the step further in his column “In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons” on The Intercept website (1/9/15). “One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself.” Greenwald lays out this principle, which he heartily supports, while taking things to an extreme, which is his wont:
But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show ‘solidarity’ with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. ‘The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,’ announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”
Greenwald then proceeds to reprint some vile Nazi/white supremacist anti-semitic cartoons, as well as some of Carlos Latuff’s more thoughtful, virulent anti-Zionist cartoons, in a tongue-in-cheek “solidarity.” This is plainly a case of “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” to use an old cliché. Greenwald proceeds to lambast the suppression of ideas and the media’s self-censorship “out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material)” and argues that “there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one?”

Glenn Greenwald excoriates unreflective calls for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in order to bolster his defense of the right to express repellent ideas while condemning those ideas themselves. I do admire free speech absolutists like Greenwald, while not being one myself. One reason I am not is based on “fine political abstractions” like not believing in the concept of “rights.” Our “rights” cannot be guaranteed by some spook in the sky (God) or some piece of parchment (the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) or some fanciful state of nature (which seems in conflict with concurrent notions of “the survival of the fittest”). If we depend on the government to defend our “rights,” then what the government gives the government can certainly take away. And if we depend on ourselves, individually and collectively, to defend our “rights” through organization and action to advance our power, we come awfully close to declaring that “might is right.” The idea of “rights” then is sorely lacking in any intelligent foundation.

My main reason, however, is practical. If I belonged to a minority group, and some other group of people were organizing to massacre me and other members of my minority, I would do everything in my power to defend myself and my group to prevent being killed, including denying my attackers their free speech as a tool for organizing their attempt at genocide. In a previous column, I defended Vidal Sassoon’s history in joining the British 43 Group of Jewish war veterans in 1947 to streetfight against Oswald Mosley’s resurgent fascist Union Movement, with the 43 Group’s intent to bloody the Union Movement’s members, shatter its organization, and crush its social movement. Individual freedoms can never be absolute as they are invariably in conflict, with my freedom to stay alive in conflict with some fascist’s freedom to liquidate my commie pinko ass, for instance. If some Nazi scum were talking smack in preparation of wiping out me and my fellow Reds, I would not hesitate to shut them up to keep them from organizing and carrying through with their plans.

All of this is crucially important, what with the violence at Charlie Hebdo threatening to “fuel support for the far-right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic politics throughout Europe” and here in the United States, again according to Emily Greenhouse. James Neuger details many of the particulars of this supposed turn to the right in Europe, from the National Front in France to Germany’s Pegida, in his article “Europe’s Islam Debate Erupts as Paris Killers at Large” (Bloomberg News, 1-8-15). It is far too simplistic however to argue that Islamic terrorism feeds rightwing reaction, squeezing out “freedom of expression” in the middle. This is actually part of a broader polarization of European politics which sees the rise of more extreme politics on both Left and Right due to a number of factors, as correspondents from The Guardian/Observer sketched in “Across Europe disillusioned voters turn to outsiders for solutions” in November of last year. Listed are not just the National Front but also the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in France, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy, the ultra-left Syriza and ultra-right Golden Dawn in Greece, leftist German Die Linke as well as rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the rightwing Sweden Democrats and Norway’s Progress Party as well as the leftwing Feminist Initiative in Sweden and Danish Red-Green Alliance. Also discussed are Britain’s UKIP and BNP on the right and the pro-secessionist Scottish National Party, the rise of the Socialists and People Before Profit in Ireland alongside massive popular tax rebellions, and the left leaning Podemas Party that grew out of the indignados protests in Spain in 2011-12 in addition to regional secessionist movements such as the Republican Left of Catalonia. The Left’s anti-austerity and anti-globalization concerns are counterpointed by the Right’s anti-immigrant nationalism, with issues like anti-corruption and secession ranging across the typical Left/Right spectrum. But whether Left or Right, there are aspects to this “rise of insurgent parties across the continent,” to this anti-establishment, anti-EU upsurge, that mark a pause—if not a retreat—from the project of European integration.

How “freedom of expression” will fair through all of this is anyone’s guess.

BAY AREA CONFIDENTIAL…

When Tim Yo started me out with my own column, I was one of the original MRR news columnists. He wanted my column to be a study in three dot journalism a la Herb Caen, replete with snarky news items and snide bits of gossip. I took to the format like a fish to water, and ever since I’ve been a purveyor of snark and snide, news and gossip. Longtime readers remember I covered the incident when the East Bay BASTARD conference took umbrage with the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair for expanding to two days and overlapping one of their conference days. This caused a minor split in the local anarcho scene which produced, among other things, a second annual Anarchist Bookfair. So now there’s an overall Bay Area bookfair and an East Bay bookfair every year because, you know, old splits never die and besides, there can never be enough time or opportunity to sell anarchist merchandise to the kids.

The East Bay Anarchist Bookfair on December 14 of last year was a study in bucolic harmony where the lion lies down with the lamb, and AJODA folks staffed a table near one run by the Qilombo folks without incident. After the demise of Occupy Oakland, all of OO’s myriad tendencies (pacifist, insurrectionist, unionist, communizing, squatter, decolonialist, etc) were in the doldrums, depressed, at a loss for what to do and where to organize, and hence prone to sectarianism and infighting. The whole AJODA/Qilombo kerfuffle that I reported on last year was typical of the internal nastiness that the entire Bay Area anarcho scene was experiencing. The Left tends to form a firing squad, rifles facing inward, when they have nothing better to do. But with the death of Michael Brown, rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner, and protests around the country, Bay Area anarchos are no longer inward looking and focused on fighting amongst themselves. They’re looking outward, enjoying an upsurge of demonstrations, protests, and riots almost daily across the Bay Area, and no longer battling against each other.

Suigetsukan Dojo’s Girl Army opted out of providing security for December 2014’s East Bay Anarchist Bookfair, so one of the organizers recruited a bunch of muay thai ruffians to help keep the peace. The verdict: the anarchist bookfair was so mellow it was boring. Just goes to show that it’s nice to have a common enemy in the police and the powers-that-be to generate some scene unity, even if that unity is faux and forced and flash-in-the-pan.