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Timothy Clark's Day Off

By Charles O'Brien

Retort Afflicted Powers: Capital & Spectacle in a New Age of War. New Edition, 2006. Verso

Timothy Clark is indeed one of our most distinguished art historians. He holds the George C. & Helen N. Pardee Chair and is Professor of Modern Art at the University of California, Berkeley. In a press release dated February 1, of this year, that school announced that he was

One of four scholars of humanities to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation distinguished achievement award. Each award is worth up to $1.5 million…He said the award has prompted him to review his basic interests as an art historian…He said he is looking forward to relocating to Rome in the third year of the award.

He is reported to be planning a conference that

will revolve around Roman sarcophagi. “This topic is just crying out for a symposium,” Clark explained. “We are at one of those moments when a seemingly familiar set of objects is being looked at afresh by scholars across the globe.”

In his off hours, Clark runs with a crowd known as Retort. Retort, according to Verso Books, “is a gathering of antagonists to capital and empire.” The bravos of Retort, more grandiosely, say

Retort is a gathering of some [!] thirty or forty antagonists of the present order of things [emphasis added], based for the past two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The present order of things, if it didn’t know twenty years ago, has been warned. Four of these antagonists – oppositional intellectuals are old hat, dissidents are a dime a dozen and everybody’s a critic – T. J. Clark, Iain Boal, Michael Watts (all three teach at U.C. Berkeley), and Joseph Mathews (whose c.v. I, to my sorrow, have not found) are Retort’s Talented Tenth, the ones with the literary skills to produce Afflicted Powers.

The book began as a billet-doux to The Day The World Said No to War. It has ripened into – what else? – an intervention (p. xii); an interrogation, too. And their literary skills? Let’s look at a couple of representative passages (a tedious but necessary business), not even the most egregious ones (those are coming). In a chapter called “Permanent War; we find (p.81)

The long-cherished fiction of America as the “reluctant power” has been utterly abandoned since September 11. If the invasion of Iraq, by barely prepared forces clearly lacking sufficient allies, was not evidence, enough of America’s eagerness for martial aggression, the 2002 National Security Strategy’s frank declaration of intent – its prospective self-vindication for the use of preemptive, unilateral force – clinches the case.

The exact phrase “reluctant power” is not much of a commonplace, but the idea it points to is. There is a tension between American prizing of strength and wariness of “entanglements.” That tension may be evaluated in a number of ways, but it is real, and it can’t be dismissed as error, let alone “a fiction.” It’s been “abandoned,” they say (“utterly” abandoned is the characteristic flourish), not "become less tenable" or something similar. If “abandoned,” though, who by? Those who have not “long cherished” the "fiction", like most of that World That Said No to War, or Retort’s brethren in opposition – sorry, antagonism to spectacle, war, and Zionist “illusion", like Pat Buchanan, still “cherish” the “fiction” (so much for “utterly abandoned”). But most who have “cherished the fiction” still do, both within the current administration and without. The ambivalence expressed by the phrase “reluctant power” has animated most of the public argument these last five years. Has one single person abandoned the “fiction”? And what does “since September 11” mean? Did the change come all at once, catastrophically? Or was it a gradual thing, so that the “abandonment” of the fiction is an end point arrived at only after a passage of years? The two claims are quite distinct, and both are wrong. Retort’s first sentence, purged of its confusions, reads thus: America is a big bully. They might have said so, but their pretensions to intellectual respectability forbade it.

Retort’s second sentence talks of “badly prepared forces.” But in three weeks, and with about 100 casualties, United Sates forces, fighting against superior numbers the whole way, dissolved the enemy’s army and state, obviating the need for a formal surrender, at the same time preventing the destruction of infrastructure and minimizing civilian casualties whose maximization was the enemy’s main strategy. Worse, Retort, with its "left" posturing, is doing no more than recycling the “rush to war” argument so dear to mainstream Democratic politicians. There was “no rush to war”. In fact, the world would have been better off with a quicker destruction of the Ba’thi regime, if in the short term it were a bloodier thing. “Clearly lacking sufficient allies,” Retort says: sufficient for what (and never mind that “sufficient” is a weasel word: a thing can always be more, and better)? Allies were always more important for Iraq as a political project than as a military one. Polish troops were good to have – for political reasons – but from a military point of view (which is what Retort is talking about here), their place could have been filled by Americans. The forces committed were sufficient. Two further points: Retort ignores the presence of dozens of allies in the Coalition, the better to make this Bush’s war (with Blair as bottom). These “antagonists of the present order of things” are indistinguishable from John Forbes Kerry’s campaign for the Presidency. But also: Clark, writing for some earlier configuration of Retort, opposed Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The matter of allies, abundant then, was then of no consequence. Today, allies are, duplicitously, given a central importance. The word “clearly” deserves comment. A phrase like “arguably lacking sufficient allies” would not have been sufficient to Retort’s purposes, or omitting an adverb altogether would have been less clearly false than what they chose. Retort aims high. Dishonesty is sauced with certitude.

Retort detects an “eagerness for martial aggression.” Now, the Bush administration certainly desired certain political results. Look back at the pre-history of the war: U.N. resolutions, weapons inspections, Arab intermediaries, encouragement of a coup, even the last-chance offer of a clean getaway for Saddam and his sons. The success of any one of those measures would have forestalled “military aggression.’ Where was the “eagerness"? Retort, odds are, subscribes to the view that the military goes to war to test new weapons systems. There is no evidence for the view, of course. Politics directs the laser.

Retort next complains of "the National Security Strategy’s frank declaration of intent.” What’s meant, is the National Security Strategy Statement. They’ve written gibberish. It’s a near certainty they’ve never read the thing, and a dead certainty they’ve never given it any thought. It’s no surprise that they see “frank” as a term of disparagement: for them, candor is unwisdom. And in the Statement, they find a “prospective self-vindication for the use of preemptive, unilateral action.” Almost accurate, for once, but thoroughly unpunctual. Policy recommendations could hardly be other than prospective. “Self-vindication” implies some sense of being in the wrong, some squirming: hardly consistent with “a frank declaration of intent.” “Pre-emptive” here is a scare word. “Pre-emptive” force has never been forbidden in international relations. Since 9/11 what’s been up for reconsideration is where preemption legitimately begins, and Retort is not even in that discussion. “Unilateral” here may mean two distinct things (and Retort can’t be bothered to choose.) The first is, acting without allies and/or under the auspices of an international institution. To have support from elsewhere is, of course, preferable, but if necessary, the United States will – like any country – take action on its own. The second is – this is Retort talking – some notion of America acting “unilaterally,” i.e. with no arms on the other side. But it is precisely our enemies who excel at that. But step back: what is the Statement? It is a policy document. It says for a single reason: it did not go without saying. It is a policy document: a set of recommendations, not an authoritative account of what is, nor a fact already tested against other facts. And it is a policy document from 2002: the hopes of an administration, of that administration’s first term, not all of whose assumptions will have carried over into the second term. It’s good enough for Retort. They’ve clinched the case. Only…what case might that be? Unless dementia suggests something else, it would have to be the case (or even the Case) of the “reluctant power.” But wasn’t that “fiction” already “utterly abandoned,” uh, one sentence ago? What case was there to be made, let alone “clinched”? This is Retort. Its cases were born clinched. These sentences are the book. It barrels on, next stop, Nowhere.

Try another sentence:

We have witnessed a unilateral declaration of war by the Islamists, said one nullity in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has claimed from the start to be engaged in a war between Islam and blasphemy (that’d be us). Hizbullah has killed hundreds of American servicemen, and Hassan Nasrallah has insisted on the centrality of “Death to America” as doctrine. Bin Laadin issued a formal declaration of war against the United States back in the 90’s (that’d be every man, woman, and child). Say all this isn’t worth a second thought, or that it’s difficult to comprehend. But it did happen. Retort says chirpily, It’s only what a nullity said. It can’t be true, and if you think it is, you’re a nullity, too. One other thing: there’s a footnote, and the footnote is a citation to Daniel Pipes. This nullity, it turns out, required to be named. The sentence means nothing, but the attitude is visible from the moon.

One more (I apologize. The book doesn’t merit point-by-point refutation, but in small doses, it’s addictive stuff.) In introducing themselves (p,. 12-13), they write:

Who are “we,” anyway? [Should we care?]…Four writers drawn from a thirty – or forty strong occasional gathering of kindred spirits: one of whom knows the hell of the Nigerian oil derricks first-hand, and another what it was like to practice law in the California prison system; one of us with Bruegel and Pasolini as his heroes, another the Levellers and Carlo Tresca.

Not much of this has any bearing on the book to come, but it does let us know the kind of hombre we’re dealing with. The posturing starts early, and it never lets up. A tip: if someone tells you he worked on an oil rig, assume he did; if he says he worked on the hell of an oil rig, assume he’s lying. And of course “knowing” Nigerian oil derricks doesn’t necessarily mean working there. He’s as likely – given these kindred spirits – to have owned the things. Then, “another [knows] what it was like to practice law in the California prison system.” What does the shift in tense at all mean? Does he/did he practice law there, or does he only know what it was like – and what is that? And one can practice law “in” the prison system without ever setting foot inside. This is Retort. Trust nothing. One kindred spirit has Bruegel and Pasolini as heroes. Fine, but what kind of credential is that? Another likes the Levellers – a fashionable enough pose back in the ‘80s. Would the Levellers like him?

The badness of the book’s prose has many facets. It is a piling up of hard-boy idees recus – you really have heard all this before – in an ‘80s academic sludge. “We” appear over and over. “We” are assumed to have grave importance. “We” are all self-indulgence. There’s lots of harrumphing. On page 174, in the last chapter, they write “We dream of an answer to 'What Does the Vanguard Ideal Mean?' ” and they go on (and never mind that the question is a misguided one). And a paragraph later, they write, “We dream of an answer.” And for the next twenty-three pages, excruciatingly, they go on dreaming. But the next sentence says this:

Of course we are aware that the problems pointed to thus far in the present chapter are deeply intractable and not likely to be properly articulated, let alone solved, in the space of twenty pages.

Twenty! Even the pagination is a scam.

The book is larded with this-is-not-to-suggests. Is it complexity, an extraordinary fineness of distinction? Nah, just ineptitude. An even modestly well-written prose would not have left such a wealth of suggestions lying around. (At the same time, the free spirits of Retort lie just as much in what they never quite get around to saying as in what they do commit.) In the Preface, they explain:

After preparatory work by the four of us separately and together, each one of the quartet [!] took responsibility [!] for the first drafting of a chapter. Every paragraph was then subjected to scrutiny [!], discussion, and multiple revisions by all four.

They worked at this!

I hesitate to call the writing obscure, because somebody might be drawn in. Don’t. The writing is obscure, and for a number of reasons. First, there’s the generically poor writing. Most of the sentences are half-formed arguments, and the bridge from one sentence to the next is incoherence. Second, there is the manner, the vain chasing after Adorno (Judith Butler, for example, is cited with approval.) Third, the - abundant - lying in the book has a special quality. A Chomsky is much better at it. His lies are full-throated. Retort mumble. They half-swallow their lies before you get the chance. Fourth, Retort don’t do well with, like, grammar. Antecedents are treated as if part of a despised ancien regime. Look again at the who-we-are statement. The roughneck with the oil-stained tee-shirt, the three-piece suit wandering around general population, the guy with the Salo bootleg, the neo-Leveller: are those the four who signed Afflicted Powers, or some of them, or are they the other 36 or so kindred spirits, the ones who know they can’t write? I would have liked to know, but the construction leaves it anyone’s guess. And you can find the same kind of thing, if you bother to look – again, Don’t – throughout the book.

And that’s the tarpit. Toward the end, Retort allows that they love their images, and there are a number of photos in the book. Let’s take a stroll through the Retort gallery.

After the cover and the frontpiece, the first picture in the book shows a bunch of young girls, most wearing scarves over their hair. Their mouths are open – presumably, they; are chanting something. One in front is holding up two fingers in a V, which in her cultural context stands for Victory, not Peace. The caption reads: “Anti-War Demonstration, Baghdad, February 15, 2003.” Here is some of what Retort has to say about “2/15,” that Day That Said No, etc.

Believable estimates the day after put the number of demonstrators in February between fifteen and twenty million, maybe higher; even the networks and newspapers of record – desperate as ever to keep the Great Refusal off the front-page--were not able to shrink the figure by more than a factor or two.

Two points about this sentence. First, it will come as news to anyone who has been consuming news the past few years that the major media outlets have been banging the drum for the Iraq war – “desperate,” in fact! And, second, the allusion to Dante, the Great Refusal, is apter than they let on. For Dante, il gran rifiuto was a thing of unredeemable cowardice – a harsh but not unfair judgment on 2/15.

They continue:

In common with almost everyone, the writers of this book could hardly believe their eyes as they surged with the crowd into San Francisco’s Market Street. Out of the torpor and humiliation of “politics” in Bush’s America had come, abruptly, a foreshadowing of a different form of life. The crowd itself – the feeling was palpable at the time--seemed to shake its head, wide-eyed with astonishment, at the unlikeliness of its own coming into being…It was a world-historical moment.

I remember the day a bit differently, At the corner of 6th Avenue and 40th Street, I saw a group of ‘60’s-vintage non-Arabs wearing Arafat scarves assembling under a PLO flag. Over on 5th Avenue, I saw a lot of people, not organized, not really moving yet, most with signs. One youngish man had a sign that said, “Bush is a Chickenhawk and a Deserter.” One elderly man, rather prosperous looking, had a sign that said, “All Rational Americans Thank France and Germany.” I saw two bearded attorneys wearing caps that said, LEGAL OBSERVER, even on the weekend impressed with their social role. And I was very happy not to be a part of it, just passing through. Now I have a good memory, and that was only three years ago, That’s all I remember. Far from being a world-historical event, it was as forgettable a day as I’ve lived. “The marches began in Melbourne and Sidney.” Retort writes rhapsodically, “and swept westward with the sun.” In Melbourne and Sidney on that day, the Prime Minister was John Howard, Bush’s most resolute backer. He holds that job today. About a year and a half later, Bush himself was easily re-elected. Anti-war demos have been called in the many months since, and attendance has dwindled. Just over a month after 2/15, when the war finally started in earnest, the demonstrations were impassioned but tiny.

2/15’s marchers, Retort says, were making a world, and like no movement before. We should be reminded of something: May 1968. May ’68 really did think to make a world, imagining pasts away. People brought pet causes – almost all of them odious (1) – to the 2/15 demo. But above all, 2/15 said, Keep Things As They Are: not a Great Refusal, but a Verweile doch. May ’68 had said, Cours, comrade, le vieux monde est derniere toi, Run, comrade, the old world is behind you. 2/15 said, Let’s stand in a field. We are the old world.

Go back to what I saw at the demo:

1 The pretend Palestinians
2 The chickenhawk/deserter meme
3 “All rational Americans thank France & Gemany”

Retort’s 2/15, their making a world, their moment of elation (2) had, as it surged forward, its lodestars:

1 The dregs of Nasserism
2 An uncritical endorsement of the Viet-Nam era military (The left used to like deserters), along with a tease for Kerry/Edward 2004
3 The dominant forces in the E.U. (a venture itself of questionable viability).(3)

Futures may be cobbled together from such stuff, but who’d want to live there?

Let’s look again at those girls in Baghdad. Instead of Retort’s caption (“Anti-war Demonstration, Baghdad, February 15, 2003”), try another ’68 slogan: Vivre sans temps mort, jouir sans entraves. Dead Time could be a title for the picture, jouissance is the last thing on these girls' minds, and entraves are all they have. Of all the photos available to them, how could Retort –and this is not a rhetorical question – have chosen one from Baghdad? The phrase “anti-war, pro-Saddam demonstration” has been accounted a slur. In what’s in this picture, only the “anti-war” half can be denied.

If Retort’s “elations” evoke memories of ’68, the actual photo recalls an earlier time, 1966, when the ruling party in China went to full-scale war against the population it had at its mercy. That war claimed, at a very conservative estimate, 25,000,000 lives. This abattoir marketed itself as the Great Cultural Revolution and was received elsewhere, for example, in France’s Lefter quarters – as a new world a-borning. The Situationist International, though, responded – promptly – with a long denunciation, “The Explosion Point of Ideology.” Where others saw a thing of wonder, they saw What Is, and worse. Today, since, say, the early 90’s, that piece of China’s history has been pretty universally acknowledged to have been a bad thing (not often in Situationist terms, though). But earlier, say, in the 70’s there was no such acknowledgement. Little groups hat identified themselves as proletarian couldn’t find much not to like. But what we may call bourgeois sources didn’t much mind either. The general theme was that what went on in China was a “fascinating experiment.” Understanding was extended where it had no place. Why this should have been so deserves a few books. (4)

Look again at “Anti-War Demonstration, Baghdad, February 15, 2003”. Retort swears that these are part of “the disbelieving and contemptuous many.” – “a foreshadowing off a different form of life,” “an absolute negation.” Look again at the picture. Their mouths are open – to, as they say, speak truth to power? – no: the better to lick the tryant’s soles (such a photo is unimaginable in Iraqi Kurdistan, under the protection of American warplanes). That these girls are white shouldn’t mislead anyone. This is the same picture that once came out of China: throngs waving little red books, lost in adulation of the half-senile Emperor, gleeful in the maelstrom. Abroad there is acquiescence, and more, embrace. With their blood and with their souls, they say in places like Tikrit and (once upon a time) Baghdad, they will defend Saddam. Abroad, they’ll do it with their indifference and their moral vanity. Being on the same side of the position as David Duke might make Retort smile. “History is cruel,” they blithely remark. Being on the same side as folk like Pinch Sulzberger and Graydon Carter ought to kill it.

The next two pictures illustrate a chapter called “Blood for Oil?” One is a picture of a skyscraper in Riyadh, the other is captioned, “Oil spill, Nembe Creek, Niger Delta, Nigeria, August, 2006." The chapter takes off from a sentence written by George Monbiot (5), offering to explain the war: " Iraq had something it [the U.S.] wanted". It ends with an observation by Donald Rumsfeld, “We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the war.” (Retort says, “Even Rumsfeld admits.”) In between is nothing much. The question mark in “Blood for Oil?” is a commonplace of bad journal articles. It suggests, but never says, Your guess is as good as mine. The once-bitten but wise will know: Waste of Time Ahead. Retort’s case is even worse.

George H.W. Bush invaded Kuwait and chased Saddam’s troops back over into Iraq. American troops were, and remained for about fifteen years, in Saudi Arabia (a fact cited in 2001 by bin Laadin as his greatest grievance). The anti-war movement back then denounced the invasion as a War for Oil. But the United States, was in a position to steal the oil of Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – who could’ve stopped it? War-for-Oil was deeply irrational. Monbiot knows all this. He has accused the United States, this time, of mass murder and massive plunder. The accusation is a simple slander. It should have been the business of Retort to say so forthrightly--sharply, even. They have an antiwar position to defend. The slander is neither endorsed nor repudiated. Instead, we are treated to 35 pages of throat-clearing, posing, and obfuscation. Again, they end by quoting Rumsfeld. It doesn’t help that Rumsfeld was not at all talking about oil, But worse is the phrase, “Even Rumsfeld admitted.” Rumsfeld is a serious man, and he was posing hard questions about real concerns. He could well have "Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will" tattooed along his neck. The contrast with Retort couldn’t be greater.

But back to the picture. The photo (by James Sparshat) of a Saudi skyscraper is rather attractive. The lower storeys are a blue washed almost to white, the upper storeys are midnight. There could be a Robert Longo mural in the lobby. The picture, though shot in 2001, takes you back to the 80’s, in an interesting way. (The rest of the book takes you back there in all kinds of bad and depressing ways.) But how does the picture advance their argument? Images like this, if of less aesthetic value, appear in advertising supplements to the New York Times every other Sunday. (You’ve got a friend in Medina!) Money, power, novelty in Saudi Arabia: who needed reminding?

The other photo needs more comment. The caption tells us this is a picture of an oil spill. What we see is a man in an orange jumpsuit with a Shell logo on the back. He is crouched on a wooden deck looking into some sort of pool. It could be water, it could be oil, but we have it, on Retort’s authority, that this is an oil spill. That’s not the problem, though. This is a picture of a man. To understand how the caption came to be, we should look back at some of Retort's discussion of 9/11. The hijackers are variously described as:

* militants – as if Retort worked for the BBC
* pilots – (J. Fred Muggs at the controls of a jumbo jet could be called a pilot too)
* aviators –
-I flew solo across the Atlantic
-I broke the sound barrier
-Yeah, well, I flew a plane into a building.

The 9/11 attacks are called “precision strikes.” Retort surely know, and surely don’t care, that precision strikes kill no civilians. It is not even a question of skill. One cell-phone call from a plane seconds before it hit the World Trade Center went this way: “I see water. I see buildings.” Retort would have added, Damn, these guys are good. They repeatedly describe the massacres as a defeat, defeat as image and defeat militarily. But if this were defeat-as-image, why has so much Arab public opinion tried to pin the thing on the Jews, or the Japanese, or the Republicans, anyone? The victim of an atrocity – and none in history was as public and unambiguous as this one – has, cold comfort, the moral advantage. And to call it a military defeat complements bin Laadin’s description of it as a “conquest.” What would happen to the conqueror if he showed his face on Trinity Place, the scene of his conquest? The word "defeat" is entirely out of place. Armed men defeat other armed men. The armed who massacre the unarmed have not defeated them. Some notion of honor is involved, a notion alien to Retort, but not to most people. Retort tosses in its share of tut-tutting, but the dominant note is one of gloating. Let other people think of airline passengers’ last moments and office workers jumping from the 80th floor (and people do). "We" have loftier concerns.

Back to that oil spill. It should be less mysterious how “we” could look at a picture of a man and say it was a picture of what may or may not be there and is, in any case, hardly visible. It is dehumanizing, sure, but he got off easy.

Next stop, Israel, in a chapter called “The future of an illusion” (no question mark this time). The allusion to Freud is presumably a generational thing. The inaptness is pure Retort. The chapter is closer to Ahmadinjad than to Tony Judt. It must have been a thrill to take the title from a Jew. They write, near the start:

Notwithstanding our reluctance, we believe we must break a long-standing silence on much of the left concerning the actual genealogy – and precise dynamics - of the U.S.-Israel relationship and in particular the role of that relationship in the current imperial moment.

Having saluted themselves for their courage and their insight, they allow that “[T]he silence has not been total.” And no it hasn’t. That less-than-total-silence is all here, in Afflicted Powers: Islamophobia, apartheid(6), the Wall, “helicopter assassinations”(7), olive groves(8), Bantustans, Orientalism(9), the big bulldozers. All that’s missing are F-16’s, Apaches, and the exact phrase “brutal occupation.” (although the words “brutal” and “occupation” do turn up in the same sentence).(10)

Retort breaks some new ground too. They call Israel “a society in which total militarization and spectacular modernity [are] fully compatible.” (Italics in the original; this is crucial). Think of Israel and its enemies. For over fifty years, Egypt has been ruled by military officers. The Assad dynasty has its roots in the Syrian army. Saddam, who had more costume changes than Kylie Minogue, always preferred military uniforms. And let’s not forget more peripheral figures like Colonel Qadhdhaafi and “General” Arafat. Israel not only has always had civilian leadership. Israelis in general are fractious, disputatious, and undisciplined. “We” have no truck with “illusion.” “Total Militarization” in the Middle East will be found precisely in Israel. And a country that speaks to itself in a revived form of a dead language and where archaeology is not just a subdivision of an anthropology department but a popular hobby is an unlikely paradigm of “spectacular modernity.”

They write:

In 1967, and again in 1973, the Israelis made war on neighboring states in which Arab nationalism had taken hold: the devastating pre-emptive strikes served to cripple the opposing states’ armed forces, and left the defeated regimes politically unstable. The threat of a pan-Arab alliance receded.

Count the fantasies, or guess the number of jelly beans in that there jar, your choice. My favorite is “left the defeated regimes politically unstable.” On June 4, 1967, of the three frontline states: Egypt was run by an officer who took power by coup; another officer rules there today. In Syria, the Ba’ath party ruled; it still does. In Jordan, the Hashemite dynasty ruled and still does. But again, this imaginary political instability is talked of as if it were a bad thing – by these “antagonists of the present order of things.”

Give them credit, though. It’s not all fantasy. Between the two world wars, they say:

Strategic analysis – as articulated by the State Department and the oil companies – argued against U.S. support for a Jewish state.

True enough, and not news of any kind. Why, then, the breathlessness of that italicized “against?” It’s there to reassure us. Accuracy is not strictly forbidden, but when it does show up, it will be customized.

Elsewhere, they write that, “Image victory has turned into utter image defeat.” “Utter” is the usual Retort bluster. And image? There are a lot of pros in the image business, hacks maybe, many incompetent perhaps, and perhaps few interesting about anything else. Among those people in the business are some who talk knowledgeably and insightfully about “image.” Retort, it is just possible, might have something worthwhile to say about image. But who’d go to them to ask? But they go on:

Even scenes of “normal” Israeli life when rarely they appear, have about them a sense of emergency and duress. People seem not to stroll but to scurry, teeth gritted, more chastened than comforted by the deployment of armed force.

Now take into consideration:

- The phrase “Even [emphasis added] scenes of 'normal' Israeli life" means footage not shot on the scene immediately after a suicide bombing. But bombings are the story, even if the footage is shot elsewhere. “Emergency and duress” are the expected short-term consequences.

- The media are not friendly to Israel.

- Where, by the way is “normal” life considered news? No tv show will be interrupted to show people strolling.

Let’s suppose that Retort is right that these are the images being broadcast. The intent of the “images” is one thing, their power is another. This is the kind of reporting a moderately savvy 10-year old will dismiss as just tv. Nobody smiles? Everybody runs? Retort see gritted teeth and see a bad image (utter defeat!). But unlike the 10-year old, they believe the gritted-teeth are all there really is. The more they warm to their great themes, image and spectacle, the more untethered they get.

Elsewhere in the chapter, they write “Strategy is one thing [and they’d know] image another [and they’d know]." They propose a discussion of two “motifs” of Israeli propaganda: “Making the Desert Bloom” and “The Only Democracy in the Middle East.” “Let us take them in order,” they write, sensibly. And for the next 49 lines, they hold forth on, no, really, farming. There may be, among the kindred spirits of Retort, some Old Farmer, or at least someone who knows first hand about planting a pea-patch in the hell of a Bay Area window-box. And those 49 lines now ploughed, we find this:

And likewise its twin, “The Only Democracy.” We presume we do not need to rehearse for our readers the foundations of the dispossession and disenfranchisement(11) on which that fiction was built.

And that’s it.

“Making the Desert Bloom” was never offered as an ethical claim. It was a statement of an interesting fact. It is hardly comparable to “The Only Democracy,” which does state such a claim. “The Only Democracy” is a motif with some currency; the Blooming Desert is period stuff. It is odd, too, that Retort portrays the Blooming Desert as an image of “Zionist modernity.” Success, viability, authenticity, maybe, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, farmers were no emblem of modernity.

In a footnote, they write:

One aspect of these images-for-export was the “Plant a Tree in Israel” campaign, which fed the desert bloom fantasy while simultaneously training Westerners to the notion of sending money to Israel.

Training! Seed of Jacob, Spawn of Belial! This is not very far from the Nazi theory of the hypnotic effect Jews have on Aryans. The reference to “Westerners” is a little off, too. The “Plant a Tree” campaign had as a major target audience American Jews. To mark someone’s death, a tree might be planted in his name. American Jews are, of course, Westerners, but they aren’t Retort’s kind of Westerners, innocent victims of Zionist wiles. “Fantasy” in this passage is not as bad as “training,” but bad enough. “Desert Bloom,” like any slogan, will have its uses, not necessarily benign (not necessarily not, either) and may be at some variance with the reality it purports to describe. But fantasy? Produce did come forth from the most unpromising land. It would have cost Retort so little to say, Okay, that part’s true. But this is Retort. It would have cost them everything.

Going on, they write that:

The desert was neither empty not barren [and they’d know] (sustainable agriculture having been produced by Palestinian Arabs for over two millennia.)

Jerusalem fell to an Arab army in 638 A.D., not “over two millennia” ago. Retort is simply endorsing the “Palestinian” mythology, which has it that the region’s Arabs are older than the rocks. And what does “sustainable” mean?

STRANGER: What are ye growing there, friend?

PALESTINIAN DOING DESERT AGRICULTURE: (Note: the actor playing this part must be at least 2000 years old – not Mel Brooks, though): Why…sand! Bumper crop too!

And later, they write:

The Palestinian people, its failed official structures notwithstanding, has proved indomitable. And indomitability, over time, cannot be disguised or dissembled.

A prediction, then, based on history. Here is that history. Arabs started leaving Mandatory Palestine in the late ‘40s well before war broke out (those that remained are known not as “Palestinians” but as Israeli Arabs). The major “Palestinian” political groups (the phrase “official structures” is a dodge) later fled Jordan, and after that Lebanon. They came back to the West Bank and Gaza only with Israel’s blessing. The intifada of the 80’s was suppressed. Israel used force, but virtually none of it was lethal. The killing – and there was a lot – was internecine. The so-called al-Aqsa intifada lasted only until Israel opposed it with the I.D.F. It then came to a quick conclusion. Hamas, for all its lack of interest in a peace, has sued desperately for a truce. None of this, over time, can be disguised or dissembled. It is true, now, and absent mystification, not hard to see, and time will prove it further: there is no Palestinian people.

Oh, and the pictures. One is a full page picture with a wall in the background, a single shoe in the foreground, dirt in between. The caption reads:

Making the Desert Bloom,” separation wall at Ralkilya, West Bank, December 2003.

Yes, it is a wall. The Israeli government prefers to call the thing a “separation barrier.” In places it’s a wall, in places a fence, in places electronic sensors. Such niceties are not to Retort’s taste. Only the most crudely propagandistic version will do. And again with the Desert Bloom? “Making the Desert Bloom” was a strange thing for them to emphasize. Nobody really talks about that any more, not for a long time. Retort’s excuse was that they were only talking about the 50’s and 60’s. Yet here we are at the end of 2003, and they can’t let go. Please. Even the guy with the shoe has moved on.

We’re not told which side of the wall we’re on. If it’s the Israeli side, what are we to infer? Look. This is Israel. Nothing’s growing there. The Desert Bloom is a fantasy. Q.E.D. Or it could be the Arab side. If so, we must be looking at that age-old sustainable agriculture one hears so much of these days.

This chapter’s other picture is captioned, “International Security School, Shfayim Kibbutz, Israel, November 2001.” We see 14 men, a class being conducted in the open air. The picture is pretty much a waste of space. We know that there are private security guards in Israel, as there are elsewhere (say at the University of California, Berkeley). Security guards elsewhere, though, are not on the lookout for bomb belts. In Israel, security guards have managed to prevent detonation. In a few cases, they have not, but have given their lives shielding others from the force of the explosion. Will any of these fourteen men suffer this death? Statistically, probably not, but they have all signed on for the possibility. All this wind, in this chapter, in this book, is the sound of what it costs nothing to say.(12)

Why this chapter at all? There are walls, and security guards, in many countries. Many countries advertise their farm products. Many claim to be democracies. What is the future of Retort’s illusion? Israel deserves a chapter because Arab/Muhammadan politics demands that it should. The Negation is perceived, by a certain strand of the Left, to be the work of the Arab /Muhammadan world, who are the only game.(13) This Left has been held captive by Arab/Muhammadan politics. The Durban Conference on racism held the week before 9/11 concentrated the issue of racism all around the world into the single matter of the Arabs’ spurious claims against Israel. Early in this book, Retort considers 2/15 as the continuation, the miraculous growth of earlier globalization protests. In fact, it was the effective end of those protests.(14) Every effort must now be focused on the defense of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq.

There is a picture, on page 157, of a computer keyboard and monitor. On the monitor appears, as the caption says “Desktop background ‘wallpaper’ Amman, Jordan, child-casualty, siege of Basra, 2003." We don’t know what happened. The “siege” of Basra was not like the traditional siege. Coalition forces had the means to overrun the place. They held back in order to minimize civilian casualties. In the meantime, Saddam’s loyalists spilled Shi’ite blood freely in a city where Saddam enjoyed no loyalty. There is no reason to think the boy in the picture was killed by American arms. Chances are the boy was a Shi’ite. Al-Zarqawi brought his anti-Shi’a fervor with him from Jordan, where it is widely shared. The owner of this computer is not the likeliest person to feel grief at the death of a Shi’ite. The purpose of the screen-saver, then, is presumably to keep his anti-Western hatred on the boil. The picture yields few answers. We can say with confidence that the computer’s owner has no business living. We can also say what Retort want us to make of the picture. We are to understand it as the natural result of ghastly American crimes. We produced this sacred rage. Except we didn’t. In Retort’s eyes, though, the Arab’s case is irrefutable and the image – duplicitous through and through – is offered as if it showed an unmediated reality.(15)

There is a picture of Fallujah. To get what we are supposed to get from the picture, we must look at the footnote on page 97. It begins,

A report (released October 28, 2004) in the British Medical Journal The Lancet calculates over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since the start of the invasion.

A few points about this “report.” First, it is the source quoted by George Galloway, various Islamist groups, and here, Retort. It is, in other words, plainly untrue. Second, during the Clinton impeachment – and the whole business dragged on well over a year – an American medical journal ran an article devoted to whether fellatio is sex. Because the article was thought to be a politicization of a scientific journal, people were fired. Look again at the date of the Lancet article. It came out the Thursday before the American Presidential election. Consider, too, the methodology. Interviewers went into selected neighborhoods to ask people how many people they thought had been killed. Bodies do not bury themselves, nor prepare themselves for burial. Hospitals, morgues, coroners’ offices, houses of worship, cemeteries – even if they are improvised--are the places where people have counted the dead. The Lancet “report” cynically went to the rumor mill called Iraq to get an inflated number. They scored one.

But wait. After citing the 100,000 figure, they throw in, in parentheses,

Not including in Fallujah, site of some of the occupation’s heaviest fighting.

The only problem with the 100,000 figure, according to Retort is it’s too low.

Al-Fallujah is worth a photo and a footnote. Most Americans will have first heard of the place because four Americans were ambushed there and their burned, dismembered bodies put on display. They may also remember a video of Margaret Hassan, an aid worker kidnapped in Baghdad. It is believed that the video was shot in Fallujah. When the Marines finally took the city, they found the dismembered body of a woman – who turned out not be Hassan. (People will remember these two scenes because they are “utter image defeats.”) Also, when the Marines took the city, although this fact received less publicity, every block had a spot reserved for torture and for the videotaping of beheadings. Retort takes no notice of such things. For them, Fallujah exists only as the scene of a great American crime.

Back to the pictures. In the foreground, a man in a dishdasha lies prone – a prisoner, or more likely, dead. In the background is a Marine with an assault weapon pointed at the ground. The landscape around the two is barren and empty. The caption (in context, a wisecrack that falls flat) is, “They make a desert…”, Fallujah, Iraq, November 2004." The reference is to Tacitus’ often quoted line: “They make a desert and call it peace.” Does it fit? Certainly, the Marines did work a lot of destruction in the course of pacifying the city. There’s a little more to it, though. On the most trivial level, the desert is there, in Iraq, and was before there was a United States. (16) What matters, though, is that the destruction in al-Fallujah has not much resemblance to Roman practice in, say, the Third Punic War. In the Battle of Fallujah, jihadi force met an overwhelming response. The destruction was great, but not, according to anything I’ve seen (much of it hostile to the American war effort), gratuitous. (17) After taking the city, the U.S. promptly began reconstruction, even as war continued in the country. And whoever called it peace? Bush has said from the start that we are at war, a controversial position, and resisted calls to “declare victory” and the like. A closer fit? Opponents of the war, like 2/15, the creators of Retort’s elations, rejected the human- rights justification for the war. It’s up to the Iraqis to get rid of him, was the stock response. Those marchers who trumpeted the primacy of solidarity (The world said whatever it said), told the people of Iraq, a little softer, You’re on your own. In other words, they made a solitudinem (Tacitus' word) and called it peace.

The Arabs are the wronged, the Americans (and a few Western accomplices) those who wrong them. Retort have a trump card: torture. The frontispiece of the book is the familiar picture from Abu Ghraib of a hooded prisoner with wires hanging from him. And they refer to, but do not show, another familiar photo. Here’s their presentation:

To boast in front of Parliament, as Churchill did in 1920, that “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas…I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes [to] spread a lively terror”: there is one thing, Honorable members will understand you, even if they disagree. (Liberal imperialism never dies.) The situation is somewhat different, it seems to us, if the platitudes of “liberation” are trotted out – even to an audience of Labour/Republican sycophants – when every night on tv a naked man is crying on the end of a leash.

This passage can stand a bit of analysis. Here are Churchill’s comments in a less edited form.

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have fortunately adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favor of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses, can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.(18)

Considering that a year or two earlier, Churchill was calling for utilization of the Cheka’s methods in Ireland, this is quite an advance. He is not saying that non-combatants should be spared. He is saying that combatants (and presumably unlawful ones at that), whom it is perfectly licit to kill, should be instead fought with less than lethal means. Most major police forces have some form of “lachrymatory” gas, for use against citizens. You don’t have to like it, but you can pretend it’s a war crime. Here at home, for instance, perfectly non-violent anti-abortion protestors practicing passive resistance have had pepper spray shot into their eyes to compel cooperation. And as part of basic training, Marines are hit with crowd-control gas. Retort will be unmoved by such things, of course, because they fall outside Retort’s fantasy politics.

We were to believe that Churchill was engaged in a monstrous genocide. Poison gas – the killing kind – has been used since World War II. It has been used by the two greatest heroes of the “Arab nation” in the Twentieth Century, Nasser and Saddam. Retort, true to itself, won’t worry about such business. In Afflicted Powers’ potted history of aerial bombardment they trace – with some satisfaction – a sequence, Iraq-Germany-again Iraq. Now in the ‘20s, neither the RAF nor bombing itself was what it was to become. The first bombing of Iraq bears no resemblance to the bombing of Germany. The bombing of Germany was massive and unrestricted, but it was begun reluctantly, and only in response to the Luftwaffe’s massive, unrestricted bombing. (It’s a sign of bad times that a reminder of these facts is needed.) And the bombing of Germany bears no resemblance to the bombing in the current war. The reference to Germany is revealing. Great violence might sometimes be justified. The enemies of America – and of England and Jewry – might sometimes be wrong. Nope, even the Nazi empire is as blameless as any of Retort’s pure Arab victims. What chance was there that Retort would look at Iraq, run by a party formed in emulation of Europe’s then triumphal fascist parties, and find it deserving of violence?

“Honorable members [of Parliament] will understand you even if they disagree,” say Retort. This is a sentence scrubbed clean of meaning before being committed to print. Disagreement, like agreement, would presuppose understanding. What's their point? And understanding should not be an issue. Churchill’s words, in Retort’s version, are pretty blunt, and pretty hard to get wrong. What Churchill did say is also easy to understand but, as Retort, would have it, understanding is only available to the tainted, the “honorable [the sneer comes free] members.” And “even if they disagree?” But shouldn’t they disagree, according to Retort? Doesn’t Retort disagree? I dream of an answer.

“Liberal imperialism never dies.” First of all, the sentence is inept. It may or may not be true that “liberal imperialism” never dies, but a speech from 1920 (or even more particularly, the imagined response to that speech) doesn’t demonstrate the point. More important, though, how should we understand the phrase, “liberal imperialism” ? "Anti-imperialism” has been the refuge of quite a few scoundrels, in the West, outside it, in between. There have been imperialisms and imperialisms. Belgium’s tenure in the Congo will not find many defenders. But King Leopold’s rule was not the norm elsewhere even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, sub-Saharan Africa never menaced Europe, and the slave-trade was a one-way street. Africans were taken by others. The West has a very different history with its nearer neighbors. In 711 A.D., dar al-Islam invaded Spain; in 1683 it laid siege to Vienna. In the centuries between, the aggression was exclusively against the West.(19) Even into the Nineteeth Century, the Ottoman Empire fought without quarter to retain its Balkan conquests, and North African pirates trawled the Mediterranean for slaves and plunder. Today, many are puzzled by what they hear from that part of the world. Spain is al-Andaluz. “Jerusalem is ours.” Europe will be ours within about 20 years. America must surrender. America must be destroyed. Bush must convert. The banner of Muhammadism will fly over the White House. “Islam will dominate the earth.” Are these people crazy? Stone crazy, but in the shorter timer, they simply remember, and with delectation and no shred of remorse, their centuries of overlordship.

Beginning in the Nineteenth Century, that history reversed – to an extent. The French colonial presence in Algeria, 1830 to 1962, initially a way of ending the “pirate utopias” of the day, was unusually long. Its presence elsewhere in the Maghrib was shorter; and shorter still were Italy’s colonization of Libya (36 years) and English rule in Egypt (40 years). The alleged English and French colonization of the Mashriq was, in fact, the administration of a League of Nations mandate. (Iraq, Palestine, Syria). European colonization, whatever it was, was not payback: no general massacres, no enslavement, no concubinage, no devsirme, no forced conversions, no seizure of mosques.

Let’s look at Churchill’s imperial adventures in the region, first in Sudan, then in Iraq (both places still, somehow, in the news). Churchill’s book The River War, is his eyewitness account of the British expedition to wipe out the remnants of the Mahdi’s army. To a good anti-imperialist, the book is one long confession, awaiting only a death sentence to conclude it. It is a no such thing. It is the story of a bitter fight to abolish chattel slavery, decades after General Lee was forced to surrender, decades before Arab rule in Sudan is ended. Of the two sides contending in The River War, one stood for human emancipation. It was Churchill’s side.

Let’s now look at Iraq’s colonial scars. What is today Iraq was freed from Ottoman rule not through Arab efforts, which were ineffectual, but by force of French and, mostly, British arms. “Iraq” was cobbled together under League of Nations auspices and under British administration.(20) The British had the run of the place and formed the place, they set up infrastructures that would govern the place when it was on its own. They came back in briefly during World War II, to expel a regime aligned with Hitler. And during the Mandate period, petroleum – Iraq’s only source of income – was discovered by Western geologists. Wells were dug – by Western engineers, financing was had, by – no need to go on. Today, that petroleum belongs to Iraq, whoever or whatever Iraq may turn out to be.

There are two further points in Churchill’s speech that will seem to damn him. The first is the phrase, “a lively terror,” the second the use of term “civilized.” A “lively terror” here – if Churchill is quoted accurately – means instilling fear in someone in lieu of killing him, a markedly different procedure from the genocidal assaults that confront us today. “Civilized,” as Churchill uses it here, is a term a politician would be unlikely to use today. People talk today of civilizations, vaguely assumed to be of equal value, with even the “clash of civilizations” a thing to be either avoided or regretted. “Civilization,” in the sense of the thing that I have and you do not, is heard today mainly from Arabs. It is frequent in Iraqi Arab rhetoric. It is there, too, in Colonel Qadhdhaafi’s description (to Oriana Fallaci, r.i.p.) of Arab predations in Sicily and Southern Italy, as the “light of Civilization.” The assumption of superiority and the will to dominate are alive and well, and they are aimed at us, and they have no tincture of benignity.

“Liberal imperialism” is undefined here, but the rest of the book might constitute its definition. “Liberal imperialism” would be killing slavers in Sudan or establishing Iraq as a sovereign state. It would be getting rid of Saddam. It would be, for that matter, the interventions in the former Yugoslavia or the Australian troops in East Timor. It need not – not even close – involve territorial expansion or appropriation of resources. Nothing much need be shown. “Liberal imperialism” is that imperialism you can’t find anything really bad (i.e. bad and true) about, except that it pleases you to say “imperialism.” Even non-imperialism becomes just another variant of imperialism. “Liberal imperialism” is …whatever you want it to be!

And now to Retort’s trump:

The situation is somewhat different, it seems to us, if the platitudes of “liberation” are trotted out – even to an audience of Labour/Republican sycophants – when every night on TV a naked man is crying at the end of a leash.

What these “platitudes of liberation” are they don’t say. Retort, themselves purveyors of the stalest stuff, think that throwing out the word "platitudes" invalidates anything the other side might say. Saddam has fallen, for instance, and surely, that is a good thing – but no, Retort has ruled: no “liberation” talk. Phrases like, “democracy whisky sexy and “Stuff happens” – livelier and truer, and newer than anything in this book – must give way before the clinched case.

But there’s still that man on the leash. They don’t provide the picture, but it can be found illustrating, from September 10 of this year, an article called “Tortured screams ring out as Iraqis take over Abu Ghraib,” available at www.tdegraph.co.uk.(21)

The still photo does indeed show a naked man on a leash. There is a look of distress on his face. It can’t be seen that he’s crying, although Retort insists he is. The picture shows abuse. It does not show torture. The man is naked, like the men in a number of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Most people will have read accounts of torture from various parts of the world. I was thrown into a room. I was stripped naked, and then – Rope, knife, fire, my children -- and then the torture began.

The picture (not “platitudes of liberation”) was indeed “trotted out” every night. It and ones like it appeared on page one of America’s (and the world’s) leading newspapers for weeks on end. The apparent "newsworthiness" of the Abu Ghraib photos can be usefully compared with two other stories. The first is what was going on elsewhere at Abu Ghraib. During the period of the famous prisoner abuse, the “Resistance” was making nightly rocket attacks on the prison. These attacks were not front page news, and I have never seen any photos of the damage they did to the facility. I recall two – maybe three? – reports of the attacks. One report I do remember well, and it came long after the big Abu Ghraib story broke (and it was only one). The report was this: That there were nightly rocket attacks on Abu Ghraib, and nightly, prisoners were being killed by rockets. The lesson: panties on a man’s head are an enormity; men blown to bits night after night aren’t worth a glance.

The second is the World Trade Center. Body parts were not shown, nor people on fire. The dead were shown only if decorously covered. There were no moving images of people jumping, and very few still photos. Footage of the second plane hitting were soon banned even from the Fox News Channel. Well, taste and standards must be given their due consideration. But there’s more. The media, our betters, didn’t want to stoke our anger. To put a better a face on it, coverage was too inflammatory if it told us more than we needed to know. We needed to know only what the enemy meant and what the enemy was. The coverage we got, heavily sanitized though it was, gave us the gist. Fair enough. What was the intellectual content, though, of the Abu Ghraib coverage? Naked adult males just don’t appear on page one (not for a dollar anyway). The images were (and are) repellent. The September 11 coverage had promised us that unfiltered emotion would lead us astray intellectually. With Abu Ghraib, then, skipping the atmospherics, what was the story? That this was the United States government in action? But the United States government was preparing to put every American in these pictures on trial. That this was part of the Chain of Command? But the phrase was part of the marketing for a journalist’s book and nothing more. That this is how information is being obtained? But the abuse had nothing to do with getting information, and a serious debate on that issue was not what the weeks of above-the-fold aimed at. That such things go on in Iraqi prisons? They happen here, and newcomers have their belts and shoelaces taken away for a reason. That our troops are capable of such things? Something like 150,000 males in the felon's prime age-group were assembled somewhere; no guarantees could be given. Whatever the story was, it dissipated early. The story that remained (and goes right by such as Retort) is a different one. The corporate entities that dole out the news are in love with some kinds of ugly.

Retort don’t show the man on the leash. Rather, they show,, and it appears as the frontispiece of the book, the infamous picture of the hooded prisoner. Here, it bears the caption, “Unidentifed Iraqi (by some reports Detainee #18470) under torture by U.S. forces, Abu Ghraib prison, 2003.” The image is there. And it’s fair game for whatever it’s fair game for. “U.S. forces” did this, we read. But did they? The U.S. forces that did this were unsupervised reservists now doing time (and who knows under what conditions?). The publication of these photos was a product of the court-martialing of the perpetrators. (Although Retort claim that it never will be known how the pictures surfaced, it’s well known that they were leaked by the defense camp. Retort is lying again.) If a small group of American soldiers in the field were selling weapons and information to Zarqawi’s group, we wouldn’t say that “U.S. forces” were doing it. And neither was what happened at Abu Ghraib the work of U.S. forces. What to make of the parenthetical “by some reports Detainee #18470”? This is Retort. Before the book starts, the fraudulent concern may not look obvious. By now, it should be. And the knowingness is there to mask the fact that what is to follow is, well, a trotting out of the Old Old.

The key phrase, of course, is ‘under torture.” In the real world, people get hooked up to wires, and ferocious currents are shot into eyes, mouths, nipples, genitals. Here, the wires dangle in air. What is shown here is an allusion to torture. The spirit of 2/15, like Eliot Ness, was looking for the charge that would stick. Floods of refugees, environmental disaster, the Arab street, Stalingrad-on-the-Euphrates, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths – all were disappointments. Others, the looted museum or power outages, lacked stature. But the hooded prisoner! True, unlike all the failed predictions, he was not a necessary incident of going to war in Iraq; and after all, the scenes in Abu Ghraib could as easily have happened in a jail in Connecticut. That hooded man, though. This is the worst, the most haunting of the images from Abu Ghraib – more accurately from the brief American moment in Abu Ghraib’s history. Even so, as an anti-war argument, it’s thin to the point of nothingness. And granting every implication Retort wants the image to bear – let’s go crazy – there are some choices to be made. We can respond as the United States Army did: it moved immediately and with no public pressure to imprison everyone directly involved and to punish administratively those at the periphery. Or we can respond as Retort does: call it a “horror,” then repeat the word, say “horror” again. The word still probably means something. But chez Retort, it is all outraged propriety, not a comment on anything in the world, but the requisite praise for their own fine feeling.

Retort has further use for the hooded man. They note that such things as September 11 are:

not any the less disastrous, for the victim on the box as much as for those who were working, at the same moment to build a politics in which the “victim” might become the agent of change.

This is Retort at their most patronizing. They don’t know the first thing about “Detainee #18470.” Where do they get the idea that he in particular, whoever he may be, wants to be (their idea of ) an agent of change? But he must. They gave up a Saturday for the likes of him. And why a “victim”? If an inmate beats up John Gotti, or another inmate throws acid at Charles Manson, we could call Gotti or Manson assault victims. It wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind, though, and we wouldn’t hammer on the word. Retort don’t know why the “victim on the box” was in in the first place, or what else had happened inside. They know nothing about his circumstances. But for Retort, any Arab in American custody, even with ice cream and cake, is inevitably a victim.

They’re still not done with the hooded man.

The vanguard ideal [don’t ask: here, as a practical matter, it just means al-Qaa’idah] was an understandable response to the reality imaged on our frontispiece.

And a couple of pages later, after mentioning, the man on the leash, they write:

And in response? Surely nothing the world should be surprised at.

And there’s a picture to go with it.

The caption reads simply, “Demonstration, London, 2004.” We see two ugly actors. In front of one are two signs printed out from al-Muhajiroun's website. The top sign is…Retort’s frontispiece! Here’s their vindication! It is the hooded man, and next to him in large black letters, we read.


The honest answer would be, In some part, yes. (And what is his freedom?). The second sign shows two pictures of the Twin Towers collapsing and alongside these images


But the man on the box didn’t set foot on that box until a good two years after thousands of people were vaporized in Manhattan. We must ask, then, of the righteous of al-Muhajiroun, and of the righteous of Retort: is this your response?(22)


Before September 11, certain things were easy to guess. Hijacking was, if a little outmoded, still easy. Planes could be used as weapons. Suicide was enjoying a vogue among Arabs. Genocide was at the heart of virtually all Arab political aspiration. The World Trade Center, hit once, remained a target. On the day itself, people grasped pretty quickly what had happened and why, and who of all the peoples all over the earth was responsible.

What couldn’t be known was how we would take it. People worked in the World Trade Center, and in the Wall Street area, to make money, and lots of it. The 1990’s had been a time, we often heard of peace and prosperity (and they made it all sound like it was a good thing). In the event of a disaster, would everybody trample everybody? Would anybody attend to anyone else? Would the elbows of the stricken magnify the depravity of the attackers?

September 11 came. It was not a Brechtian hell, no “utter image defeat.” The firemen who died that day – the survivors, too--are justly remembered. But heroism, less publicized was pretty common that day, and conduct less than admirable was rare. Casualties were almost impossibly low because a community, previously undetectable, formed itself at once.

There was a sense, not just on that day, but for months afterwards, of awe, an awe that had nothing to do with the solemnity offered by most of the official ceremonies and by the networks, once they came back in full commercial force, tiptoeing around the event. It was an awful memory, they said (but not a promise). We were at risk of healing ourselves to death.

People saw that world as gone; this world as a new thing, not necessarily bright, but what it would be – what it would make of us, what we would make of it. Anything can be, and anything can be thought. There was death in the air. Stakes were high – it mightn’t be too smart to stay, if you had a choice. It was, in other words, something like freedom.

What had glittered no longer did, and the most noticeable faces belonged to the formerly faceless. The New York of those days kept feeling like the London of Hope and Glory. Routines were upset, with any luck for good. Many streets were less crowded, others filled with people you’d never have expected to see. Strangers talked freely. The city was a greater democracy then anyone ever could remember. The bad days will end, it’s been said, but not yet. In the time between, we have some idea of what can see us through.


After 9/11, two of the more common catch phrases were “This changes everything” and “the death of irony.” None of that was going to happen. But it was a time when a lot of useless notions stood exposed and ready for the heave-ho. We could at least have expected to be shed of something like Afflicted Powers. Reader, I did this book so you won’t have to. If you must approach it, poke around the edges. The cover shows the World Trade Center burning. It is a capture of a tv image: File under Media Studies. The book is not really about September 11: File under war-profiteering. The back cover features, over the bar code, Check. one blurb from a man widely celebrated as far and away the greatest intellect of the age, Noam Chomsky Check; And one from a Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter Check. Turning the title page, we find – The Situationist International published nothing under copyright, inviting others to take it, even without attribution, it was there to be used, it was everybody’s – and so of course turning Afflicted Power’s title page, we find:

© Retort 2005

Those who could not make a world have made careers. Check. And “This edition published by Verso 2006.” An intervention so nice they did it twice. Check. And we read

Verso is an imprint of New Left Books.

Check. The book, we learn, was

Printed in China,

where there are no pesky unions, where slave labor is efficient, where the discipline even of “free” labor is often a bullet, the globalized economy’s Middle Kingdom. Check. And then this:

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

What moral rights?


1 The demonstration in Washington, three or four hours worth, was broadcast on C-SPAN. There, many of the placards and speakers made it clear that International ANSWER had put this party together

2 The book ends on this lyrical note:

The crying is audible, and the earth begins
to shake off sleep.

But remember, T J Clark also believes that the world is "crying out" for a symposium on Roman sarcophagi..

3 May '68 burned down the Bourse in Paris. 2/15 might as well have been underwritten by the Bourse.

4 Explanations on offer include "civilizational suicide" and "loss of confidence" on the right, and "recuperation" and "artificial negativity" on the left, and somewhere in between, considerations like simple boredom, splitting the ethical difference, aloofness standing in for principle, the domestication of more radical styles, the ubiquity of a dominant discourse.

5 Monbiot has a website, not the expected georgemonbiot.com , but monbiot.com. Cher…Madonna…Monbiot! The single name works for him. It sounds like a really dirty French adaptation of a Cuban dance. The “About George Monbiot” page of his website list the usual published in, degrees from, books by, awards received. Monbiot gives more:

During seven years of investigative journeys in Indonesia, Brazil and East Africa, he was shot at, beaten up by military police, shipwrecked and stung into a poisoned coma by hornets. He came back to work in Britain after being pronounced clinically dead in Lodwar General Hospital in Kenya, having contracted cerebral malaria. In Britain, he joined the roads protest movement. He was hospitalized by security guards who drove a metal spike through his foot, smashing the middle bone.

At the bottom of the page, we find:

No Comment

None needed. But over on the right are listed a number of links, one of which is genuinely alarming:

Careers Advice

This Monbiot bears watching.

6 After the 1949 cease-fire, there was on one side of the line a mixed population; on the other, not a single Jew. In 1967, it was discovered that even Jewish graves in East Jerusalem had been systematically desecrated. More recently, "Palestinians", apparently holding a grudge, desecrated the tomb of Joseph. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, not only was every last live Jew forced to leave, but simple prudence dictated that Jewish remains be exhumed and carried back to safety.

7 An awkward phrase, and moreover, they make it sound like a bad thing.

8 Trees get cut down all the time (hence, for example, Afflicted Powers.) Sometimes, when they are cut down in too great numbers, ecological concerns will be raised. It is only when the trees are Arab trees, that cutting them down becomes a human rights violation--just as the janjaweed expel non-Arabs in Sudan because, they announce, "Arab animals" need the land.

9 The bibliographical "Endnote" contains this sentence: "Edward Said's Orientalism (New York 1978) is still essential." Sure, and that really is the banjo player's Porsche. It's interesting that they consistently spell Qur'anic as "Qu'ranic." Let's try to reconstruct what happened. They didn't know the spelling. Not a big deal: they could have looked it up. But this is Retort. They could have used the more familiar "Koranic". The familiarity of the spelling, the old fogeyism of it, the whiff of imperialism ruled it out for Retort, who have gone to school to such as Edward William Said and As'ad Abukhalil. So they saw that nothing would do but a q , and they threw in an apostrophe, to keep it real. May we call it an Orientalizing apostrophe?

10 These lacunae will be seen to in the 25th Anniversary Edition of the book.

11 Adult Israelis, of whatever ethnicity, have the right to vote. Neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Mandate depended on election returns. With the nakba came the franchise.

12 At one point, Retort note that the words "terror" and "deterrence" come from the same root. So they do. And so we may infer that an unarmed security guard at a schoolhouse and the indomitables that show up and machine-gun students by the hundreds, it's all pretty much the same thing. Oh, the benefits of a classical education!

13 Retort is essentially a pro-situ group. The Situationist International itself was immune to Third Worldism, and others were not consecrated into Others. In particular, they were unillusioned about the Algerians and cast a baleful eye on the politics of other Arab countries.

14 Jose Bove's green pilgrimage to "General" Arafat is a pretty good illustration of the point.

15 At one point, Retort take a moment to praise the "alternative wisdom [emphasis added]" of...al-Jazeera.]

16 Arabs have lived in deserts (if not in Mesopotamia) for millennia. Opponents of the war have been quick to condemn power outages in post-war Iraq. According to arabophile opinion, it is another of the West's crimes against the Arab people--and a justification for their unrestrained violence against us--that their air conditioners aren't working.

17 The United States put off taking the city for several months, first, to attempt a less destructive solution, and then to permit the civilian population to escape.

18 On page 175, Retort attributes the quotation to Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, p. xiv. Turning to p. xiv, we find substantially the same words attributed to Churchill, with none of the exculpatory passages. However, the first sentence ("I do not understand this squeamishness") does not appear there. Their "source" was not in fact their source, but only cover for their dishonest editing. They lie, and they're clumsy. Retort is like some great mythological beast: four forked tongues, eight left feet, thumbs beyond number, and one shriveled heart.

19 The Crusades were not an exception to this point.

20 It is possible to argue that "Iraq" was a mistake. But that argument will not justify present anti-war arguments (which only call for "Iraq" to be maintained under its existing rulers).

21 The article quotes prisoners saying that the Americans never treated people this way. When the Abu Ghraib pictures were first published, the actor John Rhys-Davies was asked for a comment. He said that after Saddam and before what would come, the present--2003--would come to be known as the Golden Age of Iraqi Incarceration. He didn't have long to wait to be proved right.

22 Earlier in the book, Retort also claims that the "precision bombing" of Manhattan was a response to the bombing of Iraq. Never mind that the bombing of Iraq saved the lives of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of civilians. Never mind that genocidaires can pluck justification from nothingness. The trouble is this: Al-Qaa'ida, after September 11, invoked Iraq as a secondary justification, but it was not the bombing there, but UN sanctions, which killed a million Iraqi babies (and never mind that those deaths were a manufactured atrocity, believed today only by those with a Retort mind-set).

And there's further trouble. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaa'ida released video of the "aviators" in training. They stated their number one grievance, and it was--Bosnia!

From October, 2006


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Posted by: trkv at November 20, 2006 04:48 AM