‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom


May 27, 2015

Phnom Penh

NY TIMES Sunday Book Review

‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom

Read Bloom, and you may be led to suppose it so. “Walt Whitman,” he writes, “overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others — Dante, Shakespeare, ­Milton — consistently flood my entire being. . . . Without vision, criticism perishes.” And: “I rejoice at all strong ­transports of sublimity.” And again: “True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” And finally, emphatically: “I believe there is no critical method except yourself.” It is through intoxicating meditations such as these that Bloom has come to his ­formulation of the American Sublime, and from this to his revelation of the daemon: the very Higgs boson of the sublime. Bloom’s beguiling daemon can be construed as the god ­within; he is sire to the exaltations of apotheosis, shamanism, Gnosticism, Orphism, Hermeticism and, closer to home, ­Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” He is made manifest through the voice of poets and in the chants of those weavers of tales, like Melville and Faulkner, who are kin to ­poets.

Harold BloomDaemon Knows,” the enigmatic title of Bloom’s newest work of oracular criticism, is strangely intransitive. What is it that the daemon knows? We are meant to understand that the daemon is an incarnation of an intuition beyond ordinary apperception, and that this knowing lies in the halo of feeling that glows out of the language of poetry. “To ask the question concerning the daemon is to seek an origin of inspiration,” Bloom asserts, and his teacherly aim is to pose the question in close readings of 12 daemon-possessed writers whom he interrogates in pairs: Whitman with Melville, Emerson with Dickinson, Hawthorne with Henry James, Mark Twain with Frost, Stevens with T. S. Eliot, Faulkner with Hart Crane. He might well have chosen 12 others, he tells us, reciting still another blizzard of American luminaries, but dismisses the possibility “because these [chosen] writers represent our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” (A question Bloom does not put — we will approach it shortly — is whether shamanism, Orphism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism and all the other mystical isms, including the idea of the daemon, do in fact cling to humanism.)

For Bloom, the origin of inspiration is dual: the daemon who ignites it from within, and the genealogical force that pursues it from without. The bloodline infusion of literary precursors has long been a ­leitmotif for Bloom, from the academic implosion of “The Anxiety of Influence” more than 40 years ago to the more recent “The Anatomy of Influence.” Here he ­invokes the primacy of Emerson as germinating ancestor:

“For me, Emerson is the fountain of the American will to know the self and its drive for sublimity. The American ­poets who (to me) matter most are all Emersonians of one kind or another: Walt ­Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Henri Cole. Our greatest creators of prose fiction were not Emersonians, yet the protagonists of Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James frequently are beyond our understanding if we do not see Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab and Isabel Archer as self-reliant questers.”

Though Bloom’s persuasive family trees are many-branched, the power of influential predecessors nevertheless stands apart from daemonic possession. According to Bloom, the daemon — “pure energy, free of morality” — is far more intrinsic than thematic affinity. However ­aggressively their passions invade, it is not Whitman alone who gives birth to Melville, or Emerson to Dickinson, or Hawthorne to James, or Mark Twain to Frost; and certainly it is not the lurid Faulkner, all on his own, who rivals the clay that will become Hart Crane. Literary heritage is half; the rest is the daemon. “ ‘Moby-Dick,’ ” Bloom sums up, “is at the center of this American heretical scripture, our worship of the god within, which pragmatically means of the daemon who knows how it is done.” But there is yet another pragmatic demonstration to be urged and elaborated. “Hart Crane’s daemon,” he adds, “knows how it is done and creates an epic of Pindaric odes, lyrics, meditations and supernal longings without precedent.”Without precedent: Surely this is the earliest key, in Bloom’s scheme, to the daemon’s magickings.

Theme and tone and voice may have authorial ancestors; what we call inspiration has none. Turning to one of his two commanding ­touchstones (the other is Whitman), Bloom cites Emerson: “This is that which the strong genius works upon; the region of destiny, of aspiration, of the unknown. . . . Far the best part, I repeat, of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him.” So when Bloom tells us there can be no critical method other than the critic himself — meaning Bloom — we should not take it as blowhard hyperbole. With Emerson, he intends to pry open the unpossessed and to possess it, and to lead the reader to possess it too: a critical principle rooted in ampleness and generosity.

In this way, the illustrative excerpts Bloom selects from the work of his hallowed dozen are more than concentrated wine tastings; they are libraries in little. In considering Hawthorne, he discusses — in full — “Wakefield” and “Feathertop,” two lesser-known stories, as well as “The Blithedale Romance,”  “The Marble Faun” and the canonical “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” In his descant on James, Bloom supplies entire scenes from “The Portrait of a Lady,”  “The Bostonians” and “The Wings of the Dove,” in addition to long passages of “The Jolly Corner.” And in crisscrossing from Hawthorne to James and back again, he leaves nothing and no one unconnected. “Where indeed in American fiction,” he asks, “could there be a ­woman loftier, purer, as beautiful and as wise as Hester Prynne? Isabel Archer is the only likely candidate,” though he goes on to lament her choice of the “odious ­Osmond.” For Bloom, Moby-Dick consorts with Huck Finn, and Emily Dickinson with ­Shakespeare, while Whitman underlies, or agitates, Stevens, Hart Crane and, surprisingly, T. S. Eliot.

Of all Bloom’s couplings, Stevens and Eliot are the oddest and the crankiest. ­Despite the unexpected common link with Whitman, the juxtaposition is puzzling. Bloom’s veneration of Stevens, ­sometimes “moved almost to tears,” is unstinting. “From start to end, his work is a solar litany,” he confesses. “Stevens has helped me to live my life.” Yet nearly in the same breath Bloom is overt, even irascible, in his distaste for Eliot, partly in repudiation of “his virulent anti-Semitism, in the age of Hitler’s death camps,” but also because of his clericalism: “Is it my personal prejudice only that finds no aesthetic value whatsoever in the devotional verse of T. S. Eliot? . . . His dogmatism, dislike of women, debasement of ordinary human ­existence make me furious.” In the same dismissive vein, he disposes of Ezra Pound: “I at last weary of his sprawl and squalor.” Nowhere else in this celebratory volume can such a tone — of anger and disgust — be found. Not even in Bloom’s dispute with what he zealously dubs “the School of Resentment” (the politicization of literary studies) is he so vehement as here.

Still, emotive disclosures are not foreign to this critic’s temperament. He has, after all, already told us that criticism can be a form of memoir. “I am an experiential and personalizing literary critic,” he explains, “which certainly rouses up enmity, but I go on believing that poems matter only if we matter.” Out of this credo grows a confiding intimacy: “The obscure being I could call Bloom’s daemon has known how it is done, and I have not. His true name (has he one?) I cannot discover, but I am grateful to him for teaching the classes, writing the books, enduring the mishaps and illnesses, and nurturing the fictions of continuity that sustain my 85th year.” A touching reminder of the nature of the human quotidian, its riches and its vicissitudes, its ­successes and its losses: tangled mortal life itself, pulsing onward in the daylight world of reality. But is this what Bloom’s exalted 12 have taught of how the daemon, that rhapsodic creature of “pure energy, free of morality,” is purposed? The daemon who is trance, who is the mystical whiteness of the white whale, who is harp and altar of Hart Crane’s bridge, and who enters solely into seers and poets? Can the daemon’s lover — who is Bloom — harbor the daemon in himself? Or, to put it otherwise: May the professor of poetry don the poet’s mantle?

Meanwhile, the daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, who are his most ­dedicated antagonists. They are those verifiable humanists, the rabbis who repudiate the kabbalists, who refute the seductions of Orphists and Gnostics, who deny the dervishing god within and linger still in that perilous garden where mortals dare to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and daemons of the sublime are passing incantatory delusions.

Well, never mind — at least while Bloom’s enrapturing book is radiant in your hand. The daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, that in Eden, birthplace of the moral edict and the sober deed, there ­never was a poet.

THE DAEMON KNOWS
Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
By Harold Bloom

524 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $35.

Cynthia Ozick’s most recent book is the novel “Foreign Bodies.” Her new collection, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary ­Essays,” will be published next year.

A version of this review appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Shared Visions.

Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial


May 22, 2015

Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial

http://inthesetimes.com/article/14415/christopher_hitchens_stands_trial

With great vim and gusto, a new book dissects the ever-controversial Christopher Hitchens.

By Gregory Shupak

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.”

Seymour at LSEBy the time of his death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens had built a status perhaps outstripping that of any contemporary intellectual: His passing was considered worthy of the New York Times’ front page, and he was mourned by Tony Blair, Sean Penn, David Frum and Patrick Cockburn, among others. It is from this altitude that he is yanked down by Richard Seymour in the clever, incisive Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. The slim critique of Hitchen’s ouevre focuses on his engagement with British politics and literature, his work on religion and his double-armed embrace of American imperialism.

Though only 35, Seymour has made a name for himself as a thoughtful political analyst, notably in his book The Liberal Defence of Murder, on how the language of humanitarianism helps camouflage imperialism, and on his blog Lenin’s Tomb, an indispensible source for analysis of neoliberalism, the War on Terror and Islamophobia. Ironically, Seymour’s literary style often evokes that of Hitchens at his best. Some of Seymour’s turns of phrase are positively Hitchensian, such as his opening salvo in the introduction to Unhitched: “This is unabashedly a prosecution. And if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result.”

And when writing in the prosecutorial mode, Seymour has, like his subject, a gift for reeling off an entire firing squad’s worth of bullets in a single sentence: “Hitchens was a propagandist for the American empire, a defamer of its opponents, and someone who suffered the injury this did to his probity and prose as so much collateral damage.” Seymour is also a Trotskyist, as Hitchens once was. But there the comparisons end, because Seymour is plainly a caliber of intellectual that his subject is not.

Accuracy, Seymour demonstrates, was not a major hang-up for Hitchens. Hitchens referred to Hugo Chávez as “the General” even though the Venezuelan never held that rank; said that Muammar Gaddafi turned over a “stockpile of WMD” although Libya never possessed even one such weapon; claimed in February 2003 that an invasion of Iraq would be justified because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s presence in that country demonstrated a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda even though Zarqawi was an opponent of al-Qaeda at the time and it wasn’t clear that he was in Iraq at all; and asserted that Tunisians revolted against the Ben Ali regime because they did not have to fear violent repression on the same scale that Iranian protestors face despite the fact that 224 Tunisians were killed in their uprising as compared to the 72 killed in the Iranian dictatorship’s crushing of the Green Movement in 2009.

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.” Here Seymour adduces Hitchens’ gross misreading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, his travestying of Marx’s view of history, and his crude theological discussions: for example, Hitchens interprets the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as divine endorsement for the murder of children, an unpersuasive claim given that the story had precisely the opposite function in the historical context in which it was written and received.

Hitchens’ record on intellectual honesty is also rather blotchy. Seymour is not the first to note this; he points to John Barrell, who argued in the London Review of Books that sections of Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were lifted from other sources without proper attribution. Seymour contends that Hitchens’ The Missionary Position was a re-write of research done by an Indian author who does not receive credit in the original hardback, and demonstrates convincingly that Hitchens’ essay “Kissinger’s War Crimes in Indochina” borrows from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s The Political Economy of Human Rights without crediting the authors.

If Hitchens was a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions, one might reasonably conclude that he ought to be ignored, and that a reader’s time and Seymour’s considerable talents be put to better use. But Hitchens matters precisely because of the inverse relationship that the quality of his work has to his status. His career reveals much about the function of the public intellectual.

The familiar narrative of Hitchens’ career has it that he made an abrupt turn from Left to Right in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but Seymour complicates this, noting that traces of Hitchens’ sympathy for empire could be detected much earlier in his career. As an example, Seymour cites Hitchens’ 1992 claim that European colonization of the Americas “deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.” While Seymour notes that Hitchens did some important writing prior to his ideological shift, particularly in his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, he says too little about the high-quality work Hitchens did in the 1980s on Palestine and Reagan’s wars in Central America.

That said, Hitchens’ later years and the enormous celebrity he enjoyed during that period are a case study of just how handsome the rewards are for those willing and able to serve as attack dogs for the dominant powers of their place and time. Hitchens’ main service to the American elite was to employ a combination of innuendo and character assassination to cast aspersion on virtually every high-profile figure critical of American foreign policy after 9/11—a roster that includes Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Michael Moore, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Cindy Sheehan, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal.

Hitchens could never have amassed such a large following—and perhaps more importantly, such a powerful following—had he not so entirely embraced American power and its corresponding ideologies after 9/11. Would Hitchens have been invited on as many talk shows if, rather than writing fawning biographies of safely institutionalized figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, he had taken as his exemplary subjects two others he professed to admire even near the end of his life, C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg? If, instead of levying facile criticisms of organized religion primarily at the United States’ enemies, Hitchens had selected neoliberal capitalism for his most ferocious late-career critiques, is it likely that 60 Minutes would have profiled him when he was ill with cancer, or that his audience would have been extended to readers of Newsweek, much less the Weekly Standard?

Seymour’s book makes clear that Hitchens provides the best evidence one can find for Chomsky’s hypothesis that as intellectuals achieve increasing degrees of power, “the inequities of the society will recede from vision, the status quo will seem less flawed, and the preservation of order will become a matter of transcendent importance.” Nor is there a more perfect embodiment than Hitchens of Said’s argument that “Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performance as much as … patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.”

To put the matter another way, consider Seymour’s justifiable revulsion at Hitchens’ revealing shifts in political friendships after 9/11: “It is one thing to sell out Sidney Blumenthal to the GOP, but to exchange Edward Said for Ahmed Chalabi? To smear Noam Chomsky yet endear oneself to Paul Wolfowitz?” Hitchens’ is the logic of an intellectual opportunist, of a man who has figured out the benefits of taking a clear stance with the established order: Relationships with Said and Chomsky will impress in certain circles, but they won’t get you the ear of the President of the United States or help you become chummy with the Prime Minister of England.

unhitched in 3dHitchens was what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual”: a person who claims to speak for the interests of either a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic class. And, despite Hitchens’ protestations and pretensions of working-class sympathies, Seymour’s book makes clear Hitchens sided manifestly with the ruling class, particularly those factions of it that are concerned with foreign affairs. The most concrete expression of this was probably his joining the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was initiated and headed by Bruce Jackson, a former vice president of Lockheed Martin. However, the primary task that Hitchens took up for America’s elite was to attempt to de-legitimize its opponents. In addition to his vicious but generally insubstantial attacks on critics of American empire, this took the form of him repeatedly asserting that all anti-capitalist movements were dead and that market forces are the world’s truly revolutionary force; of his sliming the alter-globalization movement and his justifying Arizona’s racist immigration laws (though these last two are among the few points that Seymour overlooks).

Hitchens thus stands in contrast to an organic intellectual of the counter-hegemonic kind—one who practices what Chomsky sees as the responsibility of intellectuals in Western democracies: to utilize “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

By no means is Seymour the first to call Hitchens a hack and a sell-out. In the aftermath of his full-throttled embrace of gunboat diplomacy post-9/11, unmasking Hitchens became almost a cottage industry for Left intellectuals. Among the finest of these are Tariq Ali’s chapter on his former comrade in Bush in Babylon, Clare Brandabur’s “Hitchens Smears Edward Said,” Norman Finkelstein’s “Hitchens as Model Apostate,” Glenn Greenwald’s counter-obituary, and more work by Alexander Cockburn and Terry Eagleton than I could list. But Unhitched offers a more thorough and in-depth discrediting of Hitchens than anything previously published. And in doing so, Seymour has made an important contribution to understanding the political role of the intellectual celebrity in our time.

Greg Shupak writes fiction, non-fiction and book reviews. He teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph.

The Positions he Takes on The Rights of Man


May 22, 2015

The Positions he takes on The Rights of Man

by John Barrell

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n23/john-barrell/the-positions-he-takes

Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens on Paine

If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason,’ wrote Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine.​* Thomas Paine and the Promise of Revolution. And as if to reinforce that message, he has now himself published a little book on Paine, a ‘biography’ of Rights of Man.

It begins with a dedication, ‘by permission’, to President Jalal Talabani: ‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.’ However selective this description of Talabani, who has been all this and almost everything else at one time or another, it is an opening that encourages us to expect a tract for the times: a demonstration perhaps of how Paine’s book can help us understand the complexities of the situation in Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights might have to say about the legislative and judicial innovations introduced into the US and Britain as part of the war on terror.

Will Paine help us adjudicate between the rights of those who died in the Twin Towers and those who have been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the suicide bombers of the insurgency and the non-combatants murdered by the Americans in Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that he will. ‘In a time,’ he writes in his final sentence, ‘when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.’ In the event, between the dedication and the final sentence the book says nothing about Iraq or the war on terror, perhaps in silent acknowledgment of the difficulty of knowing quite how to depend on Paine in these dark times, perhaps because Hitchens believes it best to let Paine speak for himself and to leave President Talabani and the rest of us to make the connections. I would be more persuaded by the wisdom of this method if the book made more effort to expound and to summarise Paine’s political philosophy. But compared with any other book on Paine I can think of, this one is casual, even perfunctory. Long before I reached the end of what is a very long short book, I was at a loss to know why it had been written.

Discussing the reasons why Burke, who had supported the revolution in America, should have been so hostile to the revolution in France, even in its earliest and most innocent phase, Hitchens remarks that ‘it is a deformity in some “radicals”’ – he has Marx particularly in mind – ‘to imagine that, once they have found the lowest or meanest motive for an action or for a person, they have correctly identified the authentic or “real” one.’ Quite right too; and if any radical, misled by George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay’, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken.

A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. The press release accompanying the book led me to expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it exclaims, ‘marvels’ at the forethought of Rights of Man, and ‘revels’ in its contentiousness. There is a bit of marvelling and revelling here and there, but it is as routine as everything else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.

Too tired, to begin with, to check his facts. Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke, along with Joseph Priestley and Mary Wollstonecraft, was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled.

According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing.

Paine was charged with seditious libel for publishing Part Two, and to escape arrest he fled to France, accompanied by the Wykehamist gentleman-lawyer John Frost, described by Hitchens as secretary of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). The LCS was a society of radical artisans, not a gentleman’s club, and its secretary was in fact the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. The trial proceeded in Paine’s absence, and according to Hitchens the future prime minister Spencer Perceval ‘opened for the prosecution’; in fact, though Perceval read the indictment to the court, the prosecution was much too important to be left to so relatively junior a barrister, and was opened by the attorney general himself.

In 1794 Paine published The Age of Reason, ‘probably’, thinks Hitchens, in reaction to a sermon by Richard Watson, the bishop of Llandaff, though, as Paine himself tells us, he had not heard of the sermon until it was advertised in Watson’s reply to The Age of Reason, An Apology for the Bible.

This is only a selection of the many errors in this book, and they are not trivial; they misrepresent matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writings, and it is in the course of Hitchens’s attempt to describe that context that they occur. It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane’s biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily – it must have been lying open on his desk as he was writing this book. Here for example is Keane on Watson’s Apology:

Watson … went so far as to admit that parts of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses and that some of the psalms were not composed by David … Paine took particular pleasure in some of the Bishop’s curious admissions. For example, The Age of Reason questioned whether God really commanded that all men and married women among the Midianites should be slaughtered and their maidens preserved. Not so, the Bishop indignantly retorted. The maidens were not preserved for immoral purposes, as Paine had wickedly suggested, but as slaves, to which Christians could not legitimately object.

And here is Hitchens: Watson, he tells us,

was willing to admit that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch and that David was not invariably the psalmist. But he would not give too much ground. Paine was quite out of order, wrote the good bishop, in saying that God had ordered the slaughter of all adult male and female Midianites, preserving only the daughters for rapine. On the contrary, the daughters had been preserved solely for the purpose of slavery. No hint of immorality was involved.

Or here is Keane on the problems Paine encountered in his efforts to publish Part One of Rights of Man:

Paine finished the first part of Rights of Man on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791 … The next day, Paine passed the manuscript to the well-known London publisher Joseph Johnson, who set about printing it in time for the opening of Parliament and Washington’s birthday on 22 February. As the unbound copies piled up in the printing shop, Johnson was visited repeatedly by government agents. Although Johnson had already published replies to Burke’s Reflections by Thomas Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Capel Lofft, he sensed, correctly, that Paine’s manuscript would attract far more attention and bitter controversy than all of them combined. Fearing the book police, and unnerved by the prospect of arrest and bankruptcy, Johnson suppressed the book on the very day of its scheduled publication.

And here is Hitchens again:

Having completed Part One on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791, Paine made haste to take the manuscript to a printer named Joseph Johnson. The proposed publication deadline, of 22 February, was intended to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the birthday of George Washington. Mr Johnson was a man of some nerve and principle, as he had demonstrated by printing several radical replies to Burke (including the one by Mary Wollstonecraft) but he took fright after several heavy-footed visits from William Pitt’s political police. On the day of publication, he announced that The Rights of Man would not appear under the imprint of his press.

Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’ – though if Hitchens had taken the trouble to find out more about Watson he would perhaps be less dismissive of him. Like Burke, Watson was sympathetic to the cause of the American colonists but strongly supported William Pitt’s war on terror, and so, like Burke, was regarded by radicals as having abandoned his principles.

Hitchens nowhere acknowledges the debt he owes to Keane’s narrative, though he does have footnotes to Keane, eight in all, which cite him simply as the source for quotations. With unexpected generosity, indeed, he three times acknowledges Keane for quotations that he must have found elsewhere, for the versions he gives are considerably longer than those in Keane’s book.

Hitchens’s casual attitude to facts is not compensated for by a corresponding precision with ideas, or any concern for the range, the richness, the complexity of Paine’s thinking. For example, we will not learn from Hitchens anything much about what Paine thought the rights of man actually were. ‘The great achievement of Paine,’ he tells us, ‘was to have introduced the discussion of human rights … Prior to this, discussion about “rights” had been limited to “natural” or “civil” rights.’ I have no idea what this means. For Paine, the rights we have by virtue of being human – the rights of man – take the form of ‘natural’ rights, ‘civil’ rights, ‘political’ rights, and he discriminates between them with increasing care; but he would surely have been puzzled by the notion of human rights as something beyond, something different from, not ‘limited’ to, natural, civil or political rights.

Hitchens seems similarly at sea in his brief discussion of Paine’s theory of revolution which he understands entirely in terms of ‘the sudden return or restoration’ of a lost golden age, holding Paine responsible (among others) ‘for the “heaven on earth” propaganda … that disordered the radical tradition thereafter’. This is entirely to ignore the trajectory in Paine’s thought from a ‘full-circle’ theory of revolution as a return to the founding contract of society, to one in which, as Mark Philip pointed out in his superb short book on Paine (1989), revolution is represented as a new stage of social organisation made necessary by social, economic and intellectual progress.

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping


May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping

by John Berthelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/book-review-china-politics-era-xi-jinping/

Renaissance, reform or retrogression?  By Willy Wo Lap Lam. Routledge, 323 pp, softcover, available in local bookstores

China by JBIt often appears there are two Chinas – one fast-rising, showing an aggressive face to the world, building an infrastructure empire, a network of Silk Roads that stretches from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to the corners of Southeast Asia, dominating the South China Sea, pillaging resources from as far away as Africa, with all roads leading to Beijing much as they led to Rome in the Roman Imperium.

There is a second China, however, that is in a welter of ferment.  It is this China that preoccupies Willy Wo Lap Lam, a widely recognized authority on China, who has formerly held senior editorial positions with the South China Morning Post, CNN and Asiaweek and is now an academic. From the very introduction of this book onward, it is clear that he is a pessimist on China and is not a fan of Xi Jinping, who has battled his way to the top.

“While China is on course to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy soon,” he writes, “Chinese who do not belong to the ‘red aristocracy’ – a reference to the unholy allowance between top cadres and their offspring, on the one hand, and big business groups, on the other, see no cause for optimism.” 

Certainly Xi represents a dramatic change from his predecessor Hu Jintao, who with Premier Wen Jiabao presided over historic economic change while the party stultified and fell into a stew of venality. But although Xi has kicked off the biggest anti-corruption campaign since the advent of Communist government, with as many as 200,000 people arrested or otherwise disciplined, it is still unclear whether the cleanup masks a surgical expedition to clear out Xi’s enemies and potential rivals.  The  biggest to fall is famously Zhou Yongkang, “Uncle Kang,” the former head of China’s security apparatus and an ally of Bo Xilai, the now-imprisoned boss of Chongqing and a major opponent.  Zhou is the highest public official ever to be prosecuted. But Xi has also cleared out the entire top of the country’s oil and gas sector – where Zhou’s son was a top official.

Lam’s 323-page analysis of Xi’s rise to power is deeply detailed and essential reading for anybody who is interested in the China that lurks behind the confident consolidation of government that has gone on since he became the head of the government in November 2012.  In particular,  of interest is the reversal of philosophy from that put in place by Deng Xiaoping, who in the wake of the terrors and capricious actions that characterized Mao Zedong’s later years, created a collegial and collective leadership. 

Xi is clearly having none of that. He has sidelined or pushed aside most of his rivals. The first to go was Li Keqiang, the prime minister put in power as his Sancho Panza, who quickly learned that he was a distant number two. Li rose through the ranks in the Communist Youth League and was an ally of Hu Jintao, the former leader. Hu was unceremoniously dumped by Xi in the 2013 party conference that brought Xi to power, unable to retain any of his former titles including those connected to the military. Although Li is a trained economist and touted “Likonomics” at the outset of his premiership, Xi is clearly in charge of economics, along with everything else.

“…Compared to both ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu, the leader of one-fifth of mankind is a relatively simple person committed to defending what he regards as self-evident truths,” Lam writes. Including those is a notion that “the nature of the Party will never change.”  There has been no  thought of democratization and no letup on the war on intellectuals, the press and those who do not believe in communist orthodoxy. “Any idea that the party will undergo ‘peaceful evolution’ is out of the question.”

The Internet, perhaps the most opportunistic venue for subversion, is being tightened even further. Since Lam’s book has come out, the “great cannon” has been added to the “great firewall” as a new tool for censorship, pouring massive sprays of traffic against enemies in an attack called “distributed denial of service or DDOS target two anti-censorship sites in the US and closing them for days.

David Shambaugh, for decades one of China’s most optimistic backers in the west, shocked the world of sinologists by saying the China system was inevitably doomed.  Is Lam that pessimistic?

“Even more than factors such as shifts in China’s foreign and defense policies,” Lam writes, “the most important determinant of the trajectory of China’s development in the twenty-first century will be domestic questions. Foremost is whether China will pick a development path that favors the construction of a real market economy and a just and passionate society that embraces values such as the rule of law and equal opportunity.”

The next decade of China’s development under Xi probably isn’t going to meet those goals. Lam quotes Xi as saying the country could be undermined by “subversive mistakes.” What he meant, Lam says, “are economic, social or political policies that would compromise the monopoly on power that is enjoyed by the CCP – or more specifically, the party’s ruling elite, also known as the “red aristocracy.”  That is not a cause for optimism.

Why Did They Kill? — An Anthropologist Looks at the Cambodian Genocide


May 14, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Tuol-Sleng-prison-survivo-006 I am now reading Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill? in order to refresh myself. This study gives me useful background and a clearer understanding of what happened to the  smiling, polite and gentle people of Cambodia during the dark days of the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.. Having read William Shawcross’ book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia  on US involvement in this Southeast Asian nation during the Nixon Presidency, featuring the controversial Henry A. Kissinger, this more recent book gives me an anthropological perspective on the Cambodian genocide and the ideology and character of the Khmer Maoist agrarian experiment that brought untold hardships and tragedy to the smiling Cambodians. It is equally regrettable to note that Malaysia supported the Khmer Rouge when they occupied the country after the Civil War which  evicted the US supported Lon Nol regime. I am told that Malaysia supported the ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk not  the secretive Pol Pot and his band of murderers.–Din Merican

Why Did They Kill? — An Anthropologist Looks at the Cambodian Genocide

Among the modern horrors of mass killings of non combatants, from the Holocaust on [or for many scholars from the Amaleks on,] that of Cambodia stands out with particular starkness.  From 1975 to 1979 something like one quarter of the population was killed, not by another ethnic or religious group but by those who shared every marker which is used to identify likeness and difference among humans.  True, the non-Khmer Cham people, were singled out as the Khmer Rouge consolidated itself following a brutal civil war, but the vast majority of those herded, hounded, worked to death, tortured, beaten and shot were Khmer Buddhists, just as the perpetrators were.

Why did this happen?  What motivated the participants?  Why did Buddhist and centuries long cultural values provide so little resistance?  Outside the particularities, what if anything did the Khmer genocide share with those of the European Jews, Rwandan Tutsi (1994,)  Bosnian Muslims (1992-1995?) [Want a list?  Here and here.] Can incipient genocides be seen in their formative stages and prevented?  Indeed, are the actions and motivations of those perpetrating genocidal massacres separable from those engaging in search-and-destroy missions, or declaring free-fire zones in other wars?

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.
Book on Cambodian genocideAs one at whom this question of ‘why do people kill’ has long gnawed, and as a recent visitor to Cambodia and the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, along with its associated killing field, Alexander Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (UC Press, 2005)  lept out from the small book offerings at the former prison, now something of a museum.

Two other slender books set the scene.  Both were by elderly survivors of months of torture and starvation at the prison, where they now volunteer to witness those years for the Cambodian youth, and other tourists who come through.

Bou Meng was an artist, whose skill at painting a portrait of Pol Pot saved him from death, though not terrible privation and cruelty.  His story and background, including being part of the Khmer Rouge, is told by Huy Vannak, a Cambodian researcher, who worked with Hinton at Rutgers. Bou Meng’s powerful paintings of his prison years are hung in one of the rooms of the museum but are not, as far as I can find, available on-line. [For others I have found, see the end of this post.]Chum Mey, the second living witness, was saved because of his talent with fixing things.  Even while the Khmer Rouge were destroying those with skills and knowledge they had to save a few to keep their own vehicles and machines going.  Both books recount cruelties beyond imagining, and the sorrow of survivors. [Though there are copies available on-line, the prices are outrageous, and the money won’t go to the men, or the museum.  Try Documentation Center of Cambodia where the books were published; it is not responding as I write this.]

Hinton’s book is a terrifically serious and well informed study of the Cambodian experience. Now in the Anthropology Department at Rutgers, he went to Cambodia in 1992 to continue his graduate work on ‘the embodiment of emotion in Cambodia’ and soon shifted his focus to deal with what he was seeing and learning.  The Vietnamese occupation of ten years, which had ended the Pol Pot regime had ended only three years before; the Paris Peace accords had been signed months before his arrival. Cambodia was in ruins. He lived in a small village which had been depopulated during the genocide, conducting multiple interviews in the field which are the basis for his examination and analysis, reflecting onto and out of extensive academic work in genocide studies.  His work is rich and detailed.  The reader will learn much about Cambodian culture, belief and behavior, not only during the years of killing, but crucially, through the generations before.

Robert Jay Lifton, whose work on the Holocaust, POW thought-control, Hiroshima survivors, Vietnam Vets and the current War on Terror has almost defined a field now called psychohistory, sets up the contours in a brief forward.

…the mass killing in Cambodia follows a sequence that has been observed in virtually every genocide: a sense of profound collective dislocation and humiliation, a historical ‘sickness unto death'; an ideological vision of revitalization and total cure, which comes to include a vast program of killing to heal; and the enlistment of a vast genocidal bureaucracy in an unending quest for national purification.  … Genocide is apocalyptic  as it requires a form of world destruction in the service of a vision… or absolute political and spiritual renewal.

Hinton reminds us that the genocide did not spring up, whole cloth, out of nowhere.  The US bombing of Cambodia, 18 March, 1969-28 May, 1970, resulted in something like 150,000 deaths in the south eastern part of the country, and massive dislocation of people and destruction of their ability to make a livelihood.  When Lon Nol joined the coup against King Sihanouk in March, 1970 the Khmer Rouge, having grown from a minuscule national communist party into a formidable force by harnessing anger and resentment against the bombings, were ready to mount a credible opposition.  When Sihanouk, from exile, pleaded with his people to join and support the Khmer Rouge against the treasonous Lon Nol, they responded  and a civil war ensued that took something like 500,000 lives. Almost as soon the KR took power in April 1975 various factions began turning against each other, leading to the purges, elimination of the educated and massive population transfers out of the cities which would eventually lead to the deaths of some 2 million people, about one-fourth of the population.

As an anthropologist, and one who speaks Khmer, Hinton did his field work.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews with victims, and those executioners who would talk — many of whom, unsurprisingly, say they were innocent of the most gruesome charges, guilty only of following orders.  Indeed, even Pol Pot himself, is quoted as saying ” …even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”

In seven chapters Hinton brings us both the material of the interviews and an analysis  that aims to fit the particulars of Cambodian society to the wider, global phenomenon of genocidal behavior.   Chapter One looks at his notion of ‘disproportional revenge’ in the Cambodian historical setting where peasant anger over US bombings, dislocation and poverty could be given an initial focus against the Lon Nol forces, and then turned back, inward, against newly identified ‘class enemies.’

He sees in Cambodia’s Therevada Buddhist culture structures of power and patronage, which during normal times order relations between people and their world, but which serve as ready vessels for the new wine of suspicion and brutality. He examines how anger is framed and spoken of in Buddhist culture, and yet how, in some people, the beliefs wither and anger takes hold, finding new lines of exculpation in KR ‘theology’

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.

How does this happen?  How, if as many Khmer Rouge claimed, they killed only to avoid being killed, did the individual acts turn so grotesque, so unrelentingly sadistic?  He shows how orders and understandings, coming from ‘on high’ are filtered through local and personal histories and frames — from generations old stories of revenge and extirpating enemies root and branch, to violence suffered at the hands of Lon Nol forces transmuted and carried out against those ‘marked’ as outsiders, as a disease which had to be purified.

To understand such chilling spaces of violence …we need to examine how ideology is linked to local knowledge and psycho-social  processes.  During DK. social status was largely correlated with ‘revolutionary consciousness’ a notion that was itself forged out of an amalgam of Marxist-Leninist ideas and the Buddhist conception of ‘mindfulness.’  A person with ‘pure’ revolutionary consciousness applied the party line ‘mindfully,’ maintained an attitude of renunciation. and was completely loyal to the party.

He analyses how ‘difference’ was ‘manufactured, and how cultural notions of ‘face’ and honor were used to motivate killings.  He traces the idea and practice of disproportionate revenge.

His notion of ‘genocidal priming’ and ‘genocidal activation’ seem very good theoretical tools to inquire into similarities and differences between genocides.

Yet, as thorough an analysis and history as this is, I am left unsatisfied. In part, as the quote above exemplifies, resonant understanding is obscured by high register academic language. Two other examples: “As I noted in Chapter 5, the bodies of victims serve as symbolic templates through which their subjectivity and that of the perpetrator may be manufactured.” And: “…if we are to answer the most pressing questions about the origins of genocide..we must take a processual approach that weaves together the warp and woof of various levels of analysis.”

With concentrated reading I get it.  But as one with organizer’s bones as well as a student’s brain the language seems far removed from real understanding, from actionable understanding. The genocidaires of the world understand the language needed to carry out their schemes; those who want to disrupt and eliminate their genocidal priming have to find the language suited to the task.

I even wonder if, as useful as the idea of genocide has been since its coinage by Raphael Lemkin in 1948, by creating a category of super-murder, as it were, what is actually a continuum of motivation and behavior isn’t obscured.  The field of genocide studies sometimes seems more taken up with discussions of what constitutes a real genocide than in understanding the similarities between all forms of mass killing. If a single village in a country is wiped out, and only that village, for that village it is a genocide.  Whether or not genocide was intended, for god’s sake, has nothing to do with the facts of the slaughter. Manslaughter we all get, the unplanned killing of another; but involuntary mass killing?  If 100,00 are killed by those who want to wipe them out, and succeed, and another 100,000 are killed simply because they are in the path of directed destruction don’t we have a distinction without a difference?
What, for example, distinguishes the actions of US soldiers in Vietnam (see particularly the recent revelations in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves) from those of the Khmer Rouge? Heinous murders of those who are not resisting, and will never be a threat.  Policy at the top might be different: presumably the US high command did not intend to kill everyone, though the leadership of the Khmer Rouge claims neither did they. ‘Shit happens when great populations are transferred; resistance must be dealt with.’  But what separates the extreme and swift re-ordering of Cambodian society envisioned by the KR from the swift and extreme re-ordering of Vietnamese society in the Secure Hamlet policies of the US?  Why is the death of those two million a genocide and that two million not?  What distinguishes the torturers in the US from those of the KR?  Does it make any theoretical difference that in the one case the perpetrators were invaders and in the other were native to the soil of the carnage?
Not to pick on the United States alone. Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan called for a ‘final solution’ to the rebellious Bengalis during the Bangladesh rebellion.Sadaam Hussein ordered the death by poison gas of Iraqi-Kurds. The Japanese army in China carried out massive slaughters and conducted cruel experiments.  Is what they did different from King Leopold’s rubber-worker slaughters in the Congo, or what the Ottoman Turks did to the Turkish Armenians? Are Orthodox Jewish Rabbis calling for ‘the extermination of male arabs’ to be distinguished from the Germans who said the same?

Does categorizing one as genocide, the other not-genocide, or indeed Genocide I and Genocide IV helps us understand motivation and action at the state level or that of  the individual who actually guts the pregnant mother, smashes the baby against the tree, burns the village to the ground the living included?

Mass violence would seem to me to be a spectrum disorder, running from the least organized individual mass killings to the most organized, most participated in societal exterminations. The individual behavior, described in soldiers at their killing extreme by Karl Marlantes in What It Is Like to Go to War, as ‘berserking’, must everywhere be similar, though cloaked in local cloth.  The explanations each killer gives himself for his rampage will come from German authoritarianism, or Buddhist respect and subservience to older, better, higher, or Catholic obedience to Church and its reasons, as currently interpreted.

Everywhere belief is strong and evidence is weak, the containers of belief can be filled with new persuasions.  Everywhere those who trigger the slaughters know they must speak in a motivational language, not just of German or Khmer, but coming from deep in the culture and turning old understandings inside out. Buddhism will be banned but the structures of believing among Buddhists will be applied to the authorities now making claims on their lives.

Among genocide scholars, the goal is to identify genocide in the making and to know better how to intervene — though usually that has been understood as how to get others to intervene rather that how to internally interrupt the genocide priming, and especially the genocide activation,k which Hinton identifies. He does no better than others in showing us where the Cambodians might have known or might have acted as catastrophe built.

At what point, by what measure, does a population know that hate radio is priming a genocide?  When can it still be ignored, passing as “entertainment” as its foremost practitioners in the US claim it is? How does a population brought up for generations to honor their ‘superiors’ know when to resist, to not participate in their evil?

Among the modern horrors of mass killings of non combatants, from the Holocaust on [or for many scholars from the Amaleks on,] that of Cambodia stands out with particular starkness.  From 1975 to 1979 something like one quarter of the population was killed, not by another ethnic or religious group but by those who shared every marker which is used to identify likeness and difference among humans.  True, the non-Khmer Cham people, were singled out as the Khmer Rouge consolidated itself following a brutal civil war, but the vast majority of those herded, hounded, worked to death, tortured, beaten and shot were Khmer Buddhists, just as the perpetrators were.

Why did this happen?  What motivated the participants?  Why did Buddhist and centuries long cultural values provide so little resistance?  Outside the particularities, what if anything did the Khmer genocide share with those of the European Jews, Rwandan Tutsi (1994,)  Bosnian Muslims (1992-1995?) [Want a list?  Here and here.] Can incipient genocides be seen in their formative stages and prevented?  Indeed, are the actions and motivations of those perpetrating genocidal massacres separable from those engaging in search-and-destroy missions, or declaring free-fire zones in other wars?

As one at whom this question of ‘why do people kill’ has long gnawed, and as a recent visitor to Cambodia and the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, along with its associated killing field, Alexander Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (UC Press, 2005)  lept out from the small book offerings at the former prison, now something of a museum.

Two other slender books set the scene.  Both were by elderly survivors of months of torture and starvation at the prison, where they now volunteer to witness those years for the Cambodian youth, and other tourists who come through.  Bou

Meng was an artist, whose skill at painting a portrait of Pol Pot saved him from death, though not terrible privation and cruelty.  His story and background, including being part of the Khmer Rouge, is told by Huy Vannak, a Cambodian researcher, who worked with Hinton at Rutgers. Bou Meng’s powerful paintings of his prison years are hung in one of the rooms of the museum but are not, as far as I can find, available on-line. [For others I have found, see the end of this post.]

Chum Mey, the second living witness, was saved because of his talent with fixing things.  Even while the Khmer Rouge were destroying those with skills and knowledge they had to save a few to keep their own vehicles and machines going.  Both books recount cruelties beyond imagining, and the sorrow of survivors. [Though there are copies available on-line, the prices are outrageous, and the money won’t go to the men, or the museum.  Try Documentation Center of Cambodia where the books were published; it is not responding as I write this.]

Hinton’s book is a terrifically serious and well informed study of the Cambodian experience. Now in the Anthropology Department at Rutgers, he went to Cambodia in 1992 to continue his graduate work on ‘the embodiment of emotion in Cambodia’ and soon shifted his focus to deal with what he was seeing and learning.  The Vietnamese occupation of ten years, which had ended the Pol Pot regime had ended only three years before; the Paris Peace accords had been signed months before his arrival. Cambodia was in ruins. He lived in a small village which had been depopulated during the genocide, conducting multiple interviews in the field which are the basis for his examination and analysis, reflecting onto and out of extensive academic work in genocide studies.  His work is rich and detailed.  The reader will learn much about Cambodian culture, belief and behavior, not only during the years of killing, but crucially, through the generations before.

Robert Jay Lifton, whose work on the Holocaust, POW thought-control, Hiroshima survivors, Vietnam Vets and the current War on Terror has almost defined a field now called psychohistory, sets up the contours in a brief forward.

…the mass killing in Cambodia follows a sequence that has been observed in virtually every genocide: a sense of profound collective dislocation and humiliation, a historical ‘sickness unto death'; an ideological vision of revitalization and total cure, which comes to include a vast program of killing to heal; and the enlistment of a vast genocidal bureaucracy in an unending quest for national purification.  … Genocide is apocalyptic  as it requires a form of world destruction in the service of a vision… or absolute political and spiritual renewal.

Hinton reminds us that the genocide did not spring up, whole cloth, out of nowhere.  The US bombing of Cambodia, 18 March, 1969-28 May, 1970, resulted in something like 150,000 deaths in the south eastern part of the country, and massive dislocation of people and destruction of their ability to make a livelihood.  When Lon Nol joined the coup against King Sihanouk in March, 1970 the Khmer Rouge, having grown from a minuscule national communist party into a formidable force by harnessing anger and resentment against the bombings, were ready to mount a credible opposition.  When Sihanouk, from exile, pleaded with his people to join and support the Khmer Rouge against the treasonous Lon Nol, they responded  and a civil war ensued that took something like 500,000 lives. Almost as soon the KR took power in April 1975 various factions began turning against each other, leading to the purges, elimination of the educated and massive population transfers out of the cities which would eventually lead to the deaths of some 2 million people, about one-fourth of the population.

As an anthropologist, and one who speaks Khmer, Hinton did his field work.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews with victims, and those executioners who would talk — many of whom, unsurprisingly, say they were innocent of the most gruesome charges, guilty only of following orders.  Indeed, even Pol Pot himself, is quoted as saying ” …even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”

In seven chapters Hinton brings us both the material of the interviews and an analysis  that aims to fit the particulars of Cambodian society to the wider, global phenomenon of genocidal behavior.   Chapter One looks at his notion of ‘disproportional revenge’ in the Cambodian historical setting where peasant anger over US bombings, dislocation and poverty could be given an initial focus against the Lon Nol forces, and then turned back, inward, against newly identified ‘class enemies.’

He sees in Cambodia’s Therevada Buddhist culture structures of power and patronage, which during normal times order relations between people and their world, but which serve as ready vessels for the new wine of suspicion and brutality. He examines how anger is framed and spoken of in Buddhist culture, and yet how, in some people, the beliefs wither and anger takes hold, finding new lines of exculpation in KR ‘theology’

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.

How does this happen?  How, if as many Khmer Rouge claimed, they killed only to avoid being killed, did the individual acts turn so grotesque, so unrelentingly sadistic?  He shows how orders and understandings, coming from ‘on high’ are filtered through local and personal histories and frames — from generations old stories of revenge and extirpating enemies root and branch, to violence suffered at the hands of Lon Nol forces transmuted and carried out against those ‘marked’ as outsiders, as a disease which had to be purified.

To understand such chilling spaces of violence …we need to examine how ideology is linked to local knowledge and psycho-social  processes.  During DK. social status was largely correlated with ‘revolutionary consciousness’ a notion that was itself forged out of an amalgam of Marxist-Leninist ideas and the Buddhist conception of ‘mindfulness.’  A person with ‘pure’ revolutionary consciousness applied the party line ‘mindfully,’ maintained an attitude of renunciation. and was completely loyal to the party.

He analyses how ‘difference’ was ‘manufactured, and how cultural notions of ‘face’ and honor were used to motivate killings.  He traces the idea and practice of disproportionate revenge.

His notion of ‘genocidal priming’ and ‘genocidal activation’ seem very good theoretical tools to inquire into similarities and differences between genocides.

Yet, as thorough an analysis and history as this is, I am left unsatisfied. In part, as the quote above exemplifies, resonant understanding is obscured by high register academic language. Two other examples: “As I noted in Chapter 5, the bodies of victims serve as symbolic templates through which their subjectivity and that of the perpetrator may be manufactured.” And: “…if we are to answer the most pressing questions about the origins of genocide..we must take a processual approach that weaves together the warp and woof of various levels of analysis.”

With concentrated reading I get it.  But as one with organizer’s bones as well as a student’s brain the language seems far removed from real understanding, from actionable understanding. The genocidaires of the world understand the language needed to carry out their schemes; those who want to disrupt and eliminate their genocidal priming have to find the language suited to the task.

I even wonder if, as useful as the idea of genocide has been since its coinage by Raphael Lemkin in 1948, by creating a category of super-murder, as it were, what is actually a continuum of motivation and behavior isn’t obscured.  The field of genocide studies sometimes seems more taken up with discussions of what constitutes a real genocide than in understanding the similarities between all forms of mass killing. If a single village in a country is wiped out, and only that village, for that village it is a genocide.  Whether or not genocide was intended, for god’s sake, has nothing to do with the facts of the slaughter. Manslaughter we all get, the unplanned killing of another; but involuntary mass killing?  If 100,00 are killed by those who want to wipe them out, and succeed, and another 100,000 are killed simply because they are in the path of directed destruction don’t we have a distinction without a difference?

What, for example, distinguishes the actions of US soldiers in Vietnam (see particularly the recent revelations in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves) from those of the Khmer Rouge? Heinous murders of those who are not resisting, and will never be a threat.  Policy at the top might be different: presumably the US high command did not intend to kill everyone, though the leadership of the Khmer Rouge claims neither did they. ‘Shit happens when great populations are transferred; resistance must be dealt with.’  But what separates the extreme and swift re-ordering of Cambodian society envisioned by the KR from the swift and extreme re-ordering of Vietnamese society in the Secure Hamlet policies of the US?  Why is the death of those two million a genocide and that two million not?  What distinguishes the torturers in the US from those of the KR?  Does it make any theoretical difference that in the one case the perpetrators were invaders and in the other were native to the soil of the carnage?

Not to pick on the United States alone.  Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan called for a ‘final solution’ to the rebellious Bengalis during the Bangladesh rebellion.  Sadaam Hussein ordered the death by poison gas of Iraqi-Kurds. The Japanese army in China carried out massive slaughters and conducted cruel experiments.  Is what they did different from King Leopold’s rubber-worker slaughters in the Congo, or what the Ottoman Turks did to the Turkish Armenians? Are Orthodox Jewish Rabbis calling for ‘the extermination of male arabs’ to be distinguished from the Germans who said the same?

Does categorizing one as genocide, the other not-genocide, or indeed Genocide I and Genocide IV helps us understand motivation and action at the state level or that of  the individual who actually guts the pregnant mother, smashes the baby against the tree, burns the village to the ground the living included?

Mass violence would seem to me to be a spectrum disorder, running from the least organized individual mass killings to the most organized, most participated in societal exterminations. The individual behavior, described in soldiers at their killing extreme by Karl Marlantes in What It Is Like to Go to War, as ‘berserking’, must everywhere be similar, though cloaked in local cloth.  The explanations each killer gives himself for his rampage will come from German authoritarianism, or Buddhist respect and subservience to older, better, higher, or Catholic obedience to Church and its reasons, as currently interpreted.

Everywhere belief is strong and evidence is weak, the containers of belief can be filled with new persuasions.  Everywhere those who trigger the slaughters know they must speak in a motivational language, not just of German or Khmer, but coming from deep in the culture and turning old understandings inside out. Buddhism will be banned but the structures of believing among Buddhists will be applied to the authorities now making claims on their lives.

Among genocide scholars, the goal is to identify genocide in the making and to know better how to intervene — though usually that has been understood as how to get others to intervene rather that how to internally interrupt the genocide priming, and especially the genocide activation,k which Hinton identifies. He does no better than others in showing us where the Cambodians might have known or might have acted as catastrophe built.

At what point, by what measure, does a population know that hate radio is priming a genocide?  When can it still be ignored, passing as “entertainment” as its foremost practitioners in the US claim it is? How does a population brought up for generations to honor their ‘superiors’ know when to resist, to not participate in their evil?

In the end, the answers may be simple. In the present, no one seems to know.  I think though, that the proper question is not “Why Did They Kill?”  but “Why Do We Kill?” The list of the genocidal spectrum excludes no one, past or future.

Hinton’s book is a valuable addition particularly to the Cambodian experience, but to the field of genocide studies.  Much work to be done yet, and I think, much simplification and self-searching along with searching the complexities and looking at the others.

– See more at: http://www.allinoneboat.org/2013/04/02/why-did-they-kill-an-anthropologist-looks-at-the-cambodian-genocide/#sthash.N71qlyR5.dpuf

Book Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia


April 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

by John Bethelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/book-review-hun-sen-cambodia/

In the western mind, as Sebastian Strangio so eloquently writes, Cambodia remains “nearly synonymous with the terror and mass murder that engulfed the country in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge seized power and embarked on a radical experiment in communism.”

Hun Sen's CambodiaThe country has struggled on from that period, modernizing and tearing down its forests, building dams and highways, destroying the gorgeous traditional architecture that once characterized Phnom Penh for the same faceless high-rises that have peopled so many Asian cities at the same time millions of tourists stream to the magnificent temple complex at Angkor Wat.

But in the 35 years since that devastating period, which took the lives of an estimated 2 million people in a senseless bloodletting on the part of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the country has continued to attempt vainly to cope with its past. The United States especially, and other western powers should struggle with their own disgraceful role in that past, backing the murderous Khmer Rouge in a misguided attempt to contain the Vietnamese and their supposed ties to the then Soviet Union.

 Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 25 of those years, has seen to it that except for one or two superannuated leaders, the rank and file have escaped judgment for their crimes. After negotiations got the trials back on track, “the only trial the United Nations wanted was one Hun Sen could not control.  The only trial Hun Sen wanted was one he could.”

The result is a country that has never come to terms with what happened. “There is no doubt Cambodia is in need of some sort of a reckoning, Strangio writes. “If there is one unifying theme to the country’s relationship with its ghastly past, it is this profound lack of resolution. After overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the ruling CPP promoted rituals of remembering, but also of forgetting.”

Most of the survivors have simply picked up the pieces and moved on as best they could, some finding consolation in Buddhism and others simply choosing silence.

Much of the country’s recent history has been dominated by the presence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of foreign NGO workers attempting to rebuild the institutions that were simply demolished as Pol Pot set out in his appalling attempt to revolutionize the country. About a third of the foreign aid goes ‘technical assistance,’ “the hiring of highly paid foreign development consultants to write reports and project assessments,” he writes. “In 2002, donors paid 700 international consultants an estimated $50-70 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the wage bills of 160,000 Cambodian civil servants.” Dependence on this foreign ‘consultariat’ means that large amounts of aid simply flow back out of the country.”

That has meant that the country today is stuck in what Strangio calls a “dependence spiral,” in which the lack of government capacity to run it is matched by continuing aid disbursals.

“What started out as an investment in Cambodia’s future has evolved into an entrenched development complex that has eroded democracy, undermined the livelihoods of the poor, and given powerful elites a free hand to keep plundering the nation’s resources for their own gain.”

Nonetheless, the presence of those myriad international aid workers has managed to keep some rein on Hun Sen’s proclivities towards dictatorship. Cambodian society, Strangio points out, is considerably freer than most Asian nations, with “fewer political prisoners than China, Vietnam or Burma.  It jails fewer bloggers than Thailand or Vietnam and prosecutes fewer journalists than Singapore.”

More than 2,600 NGOs are registered with the government, 80 percent of them local. Civil society groups employ 42,000 people “who are involved in every conceivable area of government from good governance land rights, environmental conservation and gender equality to health care, anti-human trafficking and wildlife rescue. They work tirelessly to monitor and document government abuses of every sort and their reports are transmitted via a vigilant English language press.”

But it is difficult to call Cambodia a democracy. “Twenty years after the UN jump-started civil society in Cambodia, it lives on under Hun Sen as a mirage for the benefit of well-intentioned foreigners and donor governments.  While Cambodia remains freer than many other Asian countries, the outcome is a purposefully selective freedom.  Indeed, few countries have seen such a wide gap between norms and realities.”

But, as he points out, the mirage of democracy is clearly better than no democracy at all although it is a mirage nonetheless. While the NGOs have fought to clean up the unspeakable disaster that Cambodia was left with in 1979, the country more than anything else has swung back to being what it was prior to the enlightened leadership of Norodom Sihanouk, the modernizing, quixotic and beloved king who walked a decades-long tightrope between the contending powers that sought to impose their will on it.

There is undeniable change.  The young have had enough of Hun Sen and, in 2013 elections, almost certainly would have thrown him out if the election had been anything near free and fair.

But today, “If the past 30 years of Cambodian history have shown anything, it is that political changes imposed from the outside are often superficial, and only last as long as foreigners can bring political leverage to bear on the country’s leaders,” he writes. “Outside attention is refocusing. With growing aid and support from China, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have an escape hatch from western pressure.  Twenty years ago it might have seemed if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.”

Cambodia has been the subject of a long list of very good books since William Shawcross published his brilliant “Sideshow” in 2002. This is an articulate and valuable addition to that library, by a longtime resident and former Phnom Penh Post reporter who struggles, in 322 pages, to come to his own conclusions about the cataclysm that overtook a gorgeous country and which continues to play itself out today as the Chinese especially increase their sway.

‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’


March 9, 2015

NY Times SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’

In foreign policy, every success is just the start of the next crisis. Brent Scowcroft (above with President G.H.W. Bush) has pointed this out often in his four ­decades at the top of the American national security establishment. When the Soviet Union was conceding defeat in the nuclear arms race, he wondered if Gorbachev would instead “kill us with kindness.” When the Evil Empire was crumbling, he fretted about loose ­nuclear weapons and ethnic slaughter. When American troops were routing Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, he worried that “Iraq could fall apart,” leaving us to pick up the pieces. Again and again, this taciturn Mormon has been the Woody ­Allen of American foreign policy.

In “The Strategist,” his informative but inelegant biography of Scowcroft, Bartholomew Sparrow argues that this former national security adviser (to both Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush) and still-reigning wise man (as he nears his 90th birthday) could also be considered “the United States’ leading foreign policy strategist of the last 40 years.” But just as there are writer’s writers, Scowcroft is a foreign policy strategist’s foreign policy strategist, not widely known outside the guild. One of Ronald Reagan’s national security advisers cited him as a model; so did one of Barack Obama’s. “They all wanted to be Scowcroft,” one study says of his successors. Sparrow, a professor at the University of Texas, wants to narrow the gap between guild esteem and public acclaim.

But the qualities that account for this esteem make Scowcroft a tough subject for a biographer: How do you give color to the classic gray man? Journalists have ­described him as having “the gaunt demeanor of a church elder,” his words “carefully weighted to ensure that they contain not a gram more of information than their author wishes to convey.” Even after hours of interviews, Sparrow’s Scowcroft remains a steely and reticent figure.

As national security adviser, Scowcroft was known for being a trusted “honest broker,” scrupulous about presenting different views and sticking to a fair process for debating and deciding among them. He also brought an unglamorous focus on details, since strategies, he said, “succeed or fail depending on whether they are implemented effectively.” Sparrow tries to discern a strategic vision as he traces his subject’s central role in many of ­recent history’s main events. What emerges is less a coherent vision than a distinct ­temperament — one resistant to the temptations of wishful thinking and suspicious of promises of either easy war or easy peace. “We’re humans,” Scowcroft has said. “Given a chance to screw up, we will.” That temperament has surely frustrated more than one commander in chief looking for the simple choice or smooth way forward. But it also may, more than anything, explain Scowcroft’s celebrated record.

When he was coaxing the Cold War to a peaceful end, a foreign policy triumph for which Scowcroft deserves a nontrivial share of credit, he rejected triumphalism in favor of caution. He was always “very worried about all that could go wrong,” one former aide told Sparrow, ordering preparation for all manner of unintended consequence as others gloated. Soaring rhetoric made him wince; Reagan’s thunderously cheered call to “tear down this wall” struck him as a “lousy statement” that only “made it less likely that Gorbachev would tear down the wall.” When it did come down, Scowcroft resolved that there would be “no jumping on the wall.” If ever there was a real mission-­accomplished moment, this was it. Yet compare that response to the later Bush administration’s triumphant reaction to the fall of Baghdad.

This caution held true of more controversial turns in Scowcroft’s career as well. In the wake of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Scowcroft was caught by news cameras giving a respectful toast on an unannounced trip to China. He thought it less important to project outrage or serve up punishment than to get the United States-China ­relationship back on track. What seemed the morally ­upright stance, Scowcroft argued, would do little more than provoke a backlash by an insecure Communist leadership. “If this meant appearing less than zealous about defending the human rights of Chinese dissidents,” Sparrow writes, “so be it.” But Scowcroft was denounced as “supine” by the just-departed American Ambassador, Winston Lord, “obscene” and “embarrassing” on the floor of Congress.

Scowcroft has called his approach ­“gardening,” designed to patiently foster long-term change. For vindication of the long view, Sparrow considers an earlier diplomatic effort that met with ­opprobrium: the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which at first seemed to trade acceptance of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe for token concessions on self-determination and human rights. When the ­agreement was signed by the Ford administration, some White House aides protested, the president’s approval rating fell and even Ford’s own party blasted him in its 1976 platform for “taking from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day getting it.” Yet to Scowcroft, Helsinki’s token concessions would create a framework for more meaningful change. And ultimately, far from bolstering Soviet power, the ­accord turned out to be, in the assessment of the historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.” Eastern-bloc human rights organizations started calling themselves Helsinki groups.

Since Scowcroft long prided himself on a “passion for anonymity,” it was a “shocking gesture,” in Sparrow’s words, when he took to The Wall Street Journal in 2002 to warn, under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” of the dire consequences of an invasion of Iraq. The administration was staffed by protégés and former colleagues, and George W. Bush is the son of one of his best friends. To them, this public counsel was an act of betrayal — ­prophetic perhaps, but betrayal just the same. All the more so because, a decade earlier, Scowcroft had been a key advocate of using American military power to respond to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Scowcroft and His GeneralHonest broker: Scowcroft with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in 1990

In both cases, despite the apparent tension, Scowcroft had been focused on the same goal: preserving order. When ­Hussein threatened to upset the ­existing order, he felt Washington had to respond. And when the Bush administration threatened the existing order, he also ­responded.

In the final years of the Cold War, Scowcroft’s conservative focus on order may have been sufficient: Progress was on his side. But today, at a time when the international system is changing, for better or worse, the imperatives have ­become more complicated, less clear-cut. Scowcroft ­acknowledged later that once the Cold War ended, “we were confused, ­befuddled. We didn’t know what was ­going on, and we didn’t think it mattered much.” Or as Sparrow puts it, he does not try to “alter the nature of the game; . . . he plays the game set before him.” It was Scowcroft who helped momentarily push and then retract the widely derided concept of “the new world order.”

At one point in “The Strategist,” ­Sparrow paraphrases Seneca: “Luck is the result of preparation coupled with ­opportunity.” Scowcroft would most likely agree. In looking back at his accomplishments, he talks of “guiding and managing forces,” of “not bucking a tide.” Even if the imperatives today are different, Scowcroft’s temperament is still a useful tonic. For if anything makes Scowcroft a “great man,” it is that he does not see great men (or women) as all that significant.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a member of the secretary of state’s policy-planning staff from 2009 to 2012, is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about George Marshall.

A version of this review appears in print on March 8, 2015, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: On His Watch

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,963 other followers