THE MORALITY OF CHAS FREEMAN

NOVANEWS

Paul Woodward and Phil Weiss have both picked up on a speech that Chas Freeman delivered at Tufts. It is a decent speech in the sense that Freeman seems somewhat aware of the fact that Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghanis are human beings, a realization that’s tantamount to spiritual transformation for imperial apparatchiks.

Here’s the beginning of Freeman’s speech:

The Middle East is a constant reminder that a clear conscience is usually a sign of either a faulty memory or a severe case of arrogant amorality. It is not a badge of innocence. These days, we meticulously tally our own battlefield dead; we do not count the numbers of foreigners who perish at our hands or those of our allies. Yet each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul and wounds others. This deserves our grief. If we cannot feel it, we may justly be charged with inhumanity.

All that is required to be hated is to do hateful things. Apparent indifference to the pain and humiliation one has inflicted further outrages its victims, their families, and their friends. As the Golden Rule, common – in one form or another – to all religions, implicitly warns, moral blindness is contagious. That is why warring parties engaged in tit for tat come in time to resemble each other rather than to sharpen their differences.

This is where the speech is at its best, and even here Freeman can’t stick with a straightforwardly moral critique, but instead lapses into the bit about “all this is required to be hated is to do hateful things” or, basically, watch out they’re getting angry, a sugar-coated rendition of Zbigniew Brzezinski. He goes on to inventory Iraqi, Palestinian, and what he considers to be the Afghan body counts (other estimates are orders-of-magnitude greater) from imperial/Israeli massacres, and then makes per-capita estimates of what those would amount to in America:

To understand the hatreds war unleashes and its lasting psychological and political consequences, one has only to translate foreign casualty figures into terms we Americans can relate to. You can do this by imagining that the same percentages of Americans might die or suffer injury as foreigners have. Then think about the impact that level of physical and moral insult would have on us.

Now, maybe Freeman is cynical and thinks this is the only way through to his audience. With that caveat, what he is saying is, within your racist moral imaginary, imagine that what we do to brown people had happened to us. Wouldn’t be we angry, too?

Freeman goes on to write:

We’re accumulating a critical mass of enemies with personal as well as religious and nationalistic reasons to seek retribution against us. As our violence against foreign civilians has escalated, our enemies have multiplied. The logic of this progression is best understood anecdotally…No amount of public diplomacy, no matter how cleverly conducted, can prevail over the bitterness of personal and collective experience.

The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations.

First, you don’t need a PhD in colonial history to know that the “American tradition of respect for blablabla” is a fantasy fit, first, for fourth graders and second, for Ron Paul. America has been enslaving, raping, murdering, and looting for centuries. American economic “prosperity” is founded on the slave trade and genocide. To ignore that is racist, and to write what Freeman wrote is to indulge in a racist, history-rewriting exceptionalism that is the common ideological narrative of the American and Israeli settler-states.

Since the Palestine solidarity movement is overwhelmingly composed of people acutely aware that Zionism was an original sin against the indigenous Palestinian population, I’ve always thought it was a little off to embrace a warmed-over racist like Freeman just because the Lobby lashed out at him. Freeman is a tactical ally, absolutely. He is sufficiently clear-sighted that he can see the Lobby, and the Lobby is powerful, but it’s not everything—even in the Middle East, even in Palestine.

But ask another question: would Freeman be waxing in lachrymose lyrics about the fates of the Muslims we’re massacring if there were no blow-back: no 9/11s, no attacks on embassies, no terror plots, no “anti-American violence”? What if there were ways to carry out such colonial occupations without such mass death? What if the populations quietly accepted domination? These questions aren’t rhetorical. The per-capita deaths in Palestine are so much lower than in Iraq because for the most part—with heroic exceptions—resistance for the time being is passive. Here is Sara Roy reporting from East Jerusalem:

One of the great achievements of Israeli policy over the last decade, with the support of a co-operative Palestinian Authority security structure, has been to make everyday life so difficult for the Palestinians that they have no energy left to oppose the occupation. People are now simply (and understandably) grateful for the absence of pain. A friend of mine from Bethlehem, a city severed by the separation wall, told me how ‘calm’ it is now because ‘we rarely see Israeli soldiers inside the city anymore.’ Under such confinement, any small breakthrough is a success of sorts: one morning I found myself elated by the lack of traffic at the Kalandia checkpoint, which meant I got where I was going in half the time it usually took me.

So what then? What if the occupied populations are mostly quiet, I want to ask Freeman after reading that speech. What if they don’t resist? Chomsky wrote this 40 years ago in his introduction to American Power and the New Mandarins:

The primary reason for opposition to the war is its cost to us. A second cause is that the feeling that its cost to its victims is too great. At first glance this reaction seems to be at a higher moral level than the first, but this is questionable. The principle that we should retract our claws when the victim bleeds too much is hardly an elevated one. What about opposition to war on the grounds that we have no right to stabilize or restructure Vietnamese society…Such opposition is slight, and in the political arena, virtually non-existent.

Who determines when the costs are too great to the victims? We do. As Eqbal Ahmad pointed out, disaffected social-engineering liberals will decide that brown corpses are piling up unbecomingly and decide to stop the conflict, while the core values that led to the conflict remain unexamined—and thus, replicated, and manifested in the next massacre carried out under the banner of defending freedom. 

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