Yelling Past Each Other Part 2

Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal rebutted

In Part 1 we saw how Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal’s article examining the speakers’ roster of the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago elicited an unhelpful reply from the editors of New Politics, which had been one of the sponsors of that event.

Turning to the Norton-Blumenthal (N-B) article (“DSA/Jacobin/Haymarket-sponsored ‘Socialism’ Conference …“), one must observe that it is a very mixed bag, combining a spirited and intriguing defense of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua with a long string of overwrought condemnations and smears of a litany of left organizations and activists. It likewise includes a number of devices which are surprising to find in what aspires to be an act of journalism such as anonymous (and unchecked) gossip about minor decisions of the Tides Foundation several years ago.

Throughout, N-B rely on dramatic insinuations and guilt by association, allowing them to ignore the actual views of their targets. This is exemplified by their treatment of the recently defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO). They warn us that the ISO received funding from the Tides Foundation, a left charity, and that the ISO journal has several times carried interviews with someone associated with a think tank funded by the Gates foundation and the US State Department–which is for them a disturbing four degrees of separation between the ISO and the American executive. (Since the Grayzone has featured the views of Noam Chomsky, who has received Pentagon funding, we can assume that the Grayzone is less suspicious of the military.) Then, with no hint of irony or humour, they zero in on the ISO’s frequent use of the iconic image of the “raised fist” in their art. Though use of the raised fist graphic goes back at least to an IWW newspaper in 1917, and is nearly ubiquitous in today’s culture, somehow the ISO’s use of it since its founding 40 years ago is significant.* N-B reveal that the raised fist of the ISO is “eerily similar to the symbol used by the US government-funded Serbian activist group Otpor and similar offshoots in Eastern Europe, which carried out Washington-backed neoliberal ‘color revolutions’” of recent decades. It’s an incredible, almost laughable insinuation.

Perhaps their chief target is Dan La Botz, upon whom N-B bestow a time-honoured authoritarian insult: he is “anti-Nicaraguan” as though they themselves are uniquely authorized to bestow traitor status. N-B find it an outrageous scandal that La Botz, a longtime activist-scholar, might agree to share a podium with someone whose political views were not thoroughly vetted beforehand. N-B take up considerable space trying to hold La Botz accountable for the views and acquaintances of his co-speakers. N-B might have done rather differently and relayed his actual views, some of which warrant careful consideration–and challenge. For instance La Botz holds a rather sunny view of the Nicaraguan street opposition and urged support for the 2018 insurrection “because it is a democratic movement” whose victory he somehow knows would create “space” for left groups including independent labour unions.

In a bizarre but revealing swipe N-B attack historian Samuel Farber for his obituary of Fidel Castro carried by In These Times in 2016. Farber is a respected heterodox left scholar whose penetrating work has earned the admiration of Noam Chomsky. His Castro obituary is characteristically dense, offering scores of illuminating, learned and unpopular points about Castro’s achievements. If N-B’s disdain were legitimate, they could perhaps debunk any of Farber’s points. But they do not attempt that, instead focusing on an alleged sectarian no-no. “Farber accuses Castro of developing a model of ‘state capitalism,’ wielding a term Trotskyite ideologues routinely fling,” they reveal. Well, does Farber commit that ideological sin? Does he write that Fidel Castro authoured a system of state capitalism? No, not at all; precisely the opposite in fact. Farber ends his obituary with some speculation on what the dawning era holds for Cuba and foresees “a likely future state capitalist transition” if that country were to pursue a path such as the Vietnamese or Chinese have taken. It is of course impossible for Castro to have developed a system that does not yet exist. That one clumsy fabrication** is all there is to justify N-B’s venom for Farber.

But by far N-B’s most outrageous assertions are their claims that Farber and La Botz are champions of regime change in Nicaragua and Cuba. (“Dan La Botz and Samuel Farber, veteran Trotskyite activists and outspoken proponents of regime change in the two respective countries.”) This is a classic smear where N-B take Farber’s and La Botz’ advocacy of reform and label this “support for regime change.” Most people reasonably understand the term regime change to mean forced system change from without–not simply major reforms. But with this quick slight-of-hand, N-B’s smear is accomplished. To them, Farber and La Botz are not revolutionaries or even reformers but practically equivalent to US hawks like John Bolton.

If they were to take a more straight-forward approach, N-B would describe Farber and La Botz as advocates of reform and even popular revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, then proceed to articulate their own apparent opposition to reforms and grassroots-led transformation.

It is too easy to dismiss this whole distressing exchange as a sectarian shit-fight. Certainly the language is there. Witness the editors of New Politics calling N-B “neo-Stalinist”. Norton-Blumenthal on the other hand perceive deviations of a “Trotskyite” variety and evidently see themselves as defending “the socialist government of Nicaragua.” But unfortunately both sides of this are taking advantage of an increasingly common feature of modern intellectual life: the replacement of arguments with assertions. It behooves all of us to demand more vigorous intellectual standards from those who seek to influence our discussions.

* See the Wikipedia article on “Raised fist,” which names numerous organizations which make use of the symbol–the ISO not among them.

** In a similar act of surgical shoe-horning, N-B pull a quote out of a longer sentence which makes it read as though a “whistleblower” (Andrew Frank) were condemning Tides Foundation for suppressing environmental activism in the face of threats from the Canadian government. (Tides was “too afraid of reprisals from the government to act” as N-B relate.) But in fact Frank was clearly lamenting the foundation’s hesitancy to expose the government of Canada for privately informing the Tides’ CEO that the environmental charity is an “enemy of the people of Canada”–no casual threat. N-B’s misdirect is obvious when one reads the entire sentence their quote came from or even the next sentence in which Frank, who has no comment on Tides’ actual activism, observes that Tides was “understandably paralyzed in challenging the Prime Minister’s Office on this matter.”

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