Swans Commentary » swans.com February 23, 2009  



Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defence Of Murder


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Seymour, Richard: The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-240-0, 358 pages.


(Swans - February 23, 2009)   To get straight to the point, Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defence of Murder is a masterpiece of intellectual history and political agitation that is to the early 21st century what Julien Benda's La Trahison des Clercs was to the post-WWI period. One supposes that as long as capitalist war continues to plague humanity, there will be a need for such a book every generation. Richard Seymour's astonishing accomplishment is to rise to the occasion on his debut literary undertaking. Making a seamless transition from the blogosphere to the printed page, the young man associated with the popular Lenin's Tomb blog proves that an old-fashioned book still has its uses.

In a sense, I am the ideal reader for such a book since I have had many of the same concerns as Seymour going back to the outbreak of war in Kosovo a decade ago. Some of the doubts I had about liberal opinion in the first Balkans war in Bosnia now came to a head as I saw one prominent intellectual after another cheering for the NATO bombing of the Serb republic. Many of them had come of age politically during the Vietnam War, including Michael Ignatieff. Despite having ostensibly learned to dig beneath their government's justification for war after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, many an ex-peacenik was now ready to join the bandwagon for war in the Balkans. They were now ready to believe that the Serbs had slaughtered Kosovar civilians in Racak, just as some intellectuals took LBJ at his word when he blamed the Vietnamese for attacking American destroyers without provocation.

As it turns out, the Michael Ignatieffs of this world were simply reverting to form as Richard Seymour ably demonstrates in a tour de force of intellectual history. As accustomed as I was to this sordid history after doing some of my own research over the past 10 years, I was not prepared for the examination of more than 200 years of imperialist apologetics of the kind we now associate with Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, et al. The most startling revelation for me was how widespread this tendency was, even among writers I had always considered unblemished.

Take, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville who I knew only as a sharp commentator on American society in the 19th century who defended French colonialism's right to impose its will on Algeria on the basis of its Arab citizens being "half-savage." Tocqueville also dismissed American Indians and African slaves as being incapable of participating in a democracy for the same reasons.

Not only did he hold such beliefs, he acted on them politically. As a member of the French National Assembly, he prepared a report on how to defeat the resistance to French rule in Algeria so that "our domination of Africa" could be maintained.

While few would use the same kind of openly racist language in the modern era, the power relationships between the French and subject peoples is still unequal as it was back then. Through his penetrating examination of the career of Bernard Kouchner, the current French foreign minister, Seymour demonstrates that domination is still the name of the game.

Like Ignatieff, Kouchner was a 1960s leftist but even more extreme. As a Maoist intellectual, he traveled in the same circles as the men who would become "New Philosophers" in the 1970s. Along with André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Kouchner decided that his pro-Third World leftism was nothing but a youthful indiscretion.

Kouchner's initial foray into the world of "humanitarian intervention" was through the auspices of something called Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors without Borders. Starting out initially on the basis that its doctors should go where they are needed, particularly in war-torn areas, it soon evolved into a pressure group for military intervention. Its choice of arenas reflected the geopolitical needs of its benefactors, as work with Nicaraguan "refugees" in Honduras during the contra war would demonstrate. While Kouchner's professionals were shoring up the contra cause, the volunteers I worked with preferred to operate on the other side of the border as computer programmers, skilled tradesmen, and engineers. One of them was Ben Linder, who was gunned down by the same forces with which Kouchner solidarized.

But for all-out propaganda on behalf of the contras, nothing could top Paul Berman, who used anarchist rhetoric to defend the Reagan-backed terrorists in the 1980s in the pages of the liberal Village Voice. I provided information to Seymour in regard to that fumbling apprentice and was elated that finally somebody was going to cut the pretentious, warmongering liberal down to size. After reading Seymour's dissection of Berman, I can only state that my expectations were exceeded.

He begins by recounting the contretemps that led to Michael Moore being fired from Mother Jones magazine after explaining why he would not publish Berman:

The article was flatly wrong and the worst kind of patronizing bullshit. You would scarcely know from it that the United States had been at war with Nicaragua for the last five years.

Not long after Moore was fired, I contacted him to debate Berman in New York City. To my everlasting regret, the Nicaragua solidarity committee I was working with at the time decided to go with a Maoist professor who had little understanding of the process in Nicaragua.

Despite his self-professed affinity for George Orwell, Berman has proven to be adept in doublespeak, especially when it comes to "War is Peace." Six years after the Sandinistas were driven from power, Berman wrote an article for The New Yorker that was filled with lies, omissions, and mudslinging assaults on the pro-Sandinista left, including the martyred Ben Linder whose killers were excused on the basis that they suspected that "Cubans" were in the area. Rather than assassinating Linder, the contras were supposedly guilty of only shooting him from a distance in panic.

Using testimony from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Richard Seymour makes the case that an assassination did take place. He reminds his readers that Berman did not mention the autopsy report of Dr. Michael Baden, New York's chief medical examiner, who concluded that the bullet that killed Ben Linder entered his brain from a distance of less than an inch away.

After serving as a propagandist for Reagan's war on Nicaragua, Berman would serve once again for Clinton's war in the Balkans and for George W. Bush's Iraq adventure, on which behalf he wrote the execrable "Terror and Liberalism," described by Seymour thusly:

Paul Berman, as we have seen, considers Baathism a component of the Muslim branch of totalitarianism, which includes al-Qaeda. In this vein, Berman provides in Terror and Liberalism the basis for his endorsement of war against Iraq. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the situation "had the look of Europe in 1939." Iraq was an expansionist power, led by a "terrifying" man. He had a "weird hatred" of Israel, although its border was hundreds of miles away (Berman may not have learned, as Iraq did in 1981, that Israel has an air force capable of travelling that distance and dropping munitions).

With elegant turns of phrases such "Israel has an air force capable of travelling that distance and dropping munitions," we should go on record as stating that Richard Seymour is a consummate prose stylist on a par with the young Alexander Cockburn. Perhaps in keeping with an Irish heritage shared by Cockburn as well as Jonathan Swift, he is in a unique position to discern brutalities visited on a subject people, while having the rapier wit and poet's tongue to describe them adequately.

Not only is the prose distinguished by its excellence, Richard Seymour has a storyteller's knack for describing the descent of many of the ex-radicals who come under his scrutiny, including Christopher Hitchens, who emerges as a tragicomic figure. Based on interviews with people who knew Hitchens in his youth, the picture that emerges is rather Dorian Grayish. Seymour writes:

When Hitchens endorses the neoconservative Mark Steyn's paranoid ruminations on the rate at which Muslims are giving birth, he does not simply engage in an oversimplified and essentialist reading of Islam, or blame religion for Bush's policies. At this point, he begins to portray the Muslim population itself as an enemy. So, when young Muslims rioted in protest against police brutality in France, Hitchens offered the following verdict: "If you think that the intifada in France is about housing, go and try covering the story wearing a yarmulke." The stereotype of French Muslims being particularly anti-Semitic (or even fascistic, according to some) would be an important factor in converting a number of France's pro-war intellectuals to full-blown sarkozysme.

While The Liberal Defence of Murder could not possibly be improved upon, I could not help but think that is perhaps only the opening salvo in a necessary counter-offensive against the liberal defenders of murder. While open apologists for imperialist war like Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman stick out like sore thumbs, there are also those who are crafty enough to style themselves as anti-interventionists at the very time they are demonizing those who will soon be bombed. During the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, they were the "pacifists" who argued for "allowing the sanctions to work." In general, they have more of an orientation to the State Department or to bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy than they do to the Pentagon.

For example, Marc Cooper -- a long-time contributor to The Nation magazine who brags about his leftist credentials as a translator for Salvador Allende -- operates as a one-man propaganda squad against the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. While The Nation decided long ago that his fulminations against Venezuela and Cuba were not worth publishing, he is given an outlet at Robert Scheer's Truthdig Web site, and at the LA Weekly until he was terminated.

For the time being, the main threat to Venezuela is the white wealthy classes, the right-wing media, and certain sectors of the student movement. Cooper sees his role as promoting their cause in the U.S. despite the fact that they constitute the same kind of forces that brought down the Popular Unity government in Chile with such tragic consequences in the early 1970s. A book could be written about the role of characters such as Cooper, Ian Williams, and others who repeat the talking points of the US State Department when it comes to radical movements in Latin America, especially given their refusal to openly promote military solutions. Generally speaking there is an affinity between the more open advocates of military intervention such as Paul Berman and the "soft" interventionists such as Cooper who are content to do public relations on behalf of a counter-revolutionary movement that has not yet mustered the strength to openly confront the people with weapons. Pointing out this affinity is imperative for the radical movement, especially given the inevitable confrontation between the Latin American left and the colossus to the North.

Finally, there is a need to do a thorough investigative reporting job on the think tanks and NGOs that carry out the same sort of subversive activities as Cooper and Williams within the affected countries and to expose their funding sources. While Richard Seymour did a fine job exposing Bernard Kouchner's Doctors without Borders, a full airing out of the activities of the like-minded Reporters without Borders is necessary. Using rhetoric about human rights and democracy, this outfit devotes an inordinate amount of time and energy taking the side of the right-wing media in Venezuela.

There is also a need to dig beneath the surface of Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose Latin American bureau prepared a report on Venezuela that was attacked by over 100 professors and journalists with expertise in the region as filled with distortions. The purpose of HRW and Reporters without Borders clearly is to prepare public opinion for armed intervention down the road if "peaceful" efforts fail at restoring political power to the rich.

As a dramatic example of the hypocrisy of "peaceful" subversion, nothing surpasses the NGOs funded by Peter Ackerman, the corporate raider who amassed a fortune working for Drexel-Burnham in the 1970s, a now defunct firm associated with an earlier meltdown on Wall Street. Using his ill-gotten gains, Ackerman is the main support for the Albert Einstein Institution and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, upon whose board he sits.

Despite the Gandhian pretensions, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict devotes itself to meddling in the internal affairs of countries that endured the so-called "coloured" revolutions in Ukraine, Serbia, and Georgia. Ackerman has also funded the "student movement" in Venezuela that is distinguished by its hatred for the kind of political and social change that has empowered the non-white poor.

Ackerman, following George Soros, an old hand at this, sees nothing wrong with spending millions to influence the political outcomes in other countries. When such outcomes lead to unemployment and economic calamity that produce sickness and death due to privatized health care, the loss of life is every bit of much a consequence of murder as it is in Iraq or Afghanistan.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 23, 2009