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Archive for February, 2021

Algeria’s Hirak

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Algeria’s popular movement, which marked its second anniversary last Monday, and with the resumption of the weekly Friday demonstrations in Algiers and other cities and towns across the country, which had been suspended over the past year on account of the pandemic—plus the increasingly repressive hand of the government via arrests and detention (though without a single person suffering violent death or even serious physical mistreatment, and since the movement began). Though I’ve been generally following developments in Algeria I have refrained from commenting on them, as I haven’t been there since 2016 and with numerous on-the-ball friends and associates having been riveted to the Hirak, who are thus more competent to weigh in on the subject than I. So in lieu of offering my own thoughts—of which I have a couple, but whatever—here are a few worthy articles and commentaries that have appeared of late.

The best journalistic analysis I’ve seen this week is by the veteran Algiers reporter Abed Charef—one of Algeria’s best since the 1980s—writing in Middle East Eye, “Deux ans après, le bilan controversé du hirak.” The lede: “Le hirak a remis en cause l’ordre ancien, un peu à la manière de mai 1968. Mais ni les leaders, ni l’élite politique, ni l’armée n’ont su capitaliser sur le mouvement pour jeter les bases d’un nouveau projet national.”

Political scientist and friend Thomas Serres, who teaches at UC-Santa Cruz, has an interview in MERIP with activist Hakim Addad, “The Algerian Hirak between mobilization and imprisonment.

Serres, whose doctoral thesis on the Bouteflika years will hopefully be published in English in the near future, had a piece earlier this month in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, “The Algerian counter-revolution or the obsolescence of authoritarian upgrading.”

Acting Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch MENA Division and good friend Eric Goldstein has a dispatch on the HRW website, “Algeria’s Hirak protest movement marks second anniversary: President frees prisoners but more remain.”

An Algerian friend today emailed me a piece from a website called The North Africa Post—heretofore unfamiliar to me—”CIA depicts gloomy picture of situation in Algeria, warns of risk of ‘general popular conflagration’,” and asked for my opinion on it. My response was that the CIA report discussed in the piece is, I regretted to say, largely accurate IMHO.

Speaking of the CIA and Algeria, the NYT ran an op-ed on January 27th entitled “How to defeat America’s homegrown insurgency,” by Robert Grenier, identified as “a former C.I.A. station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq mission manager and director of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.” Bon, d’accord. The op-ed begins

As a former overseas operative who has struggled both on the side of insurgents and against them, the past few days have brought a jarring realization: We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen. Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.

Further down

As the Senate prepares to sit in judgment on Mr. Trump, we should be wary of the excuses put forward by his defenders — that his conviction will only divide the country further, that we should simply move on. No: It is far too late for appeasement. Those of us versed in counterinsurgency know that in violent extremism nothing succeeds like success, and that the opposite is also true.

I watched as enraged crowds in the streets of Algiers, as in most Arab capitals, melted away when Saddam Hussein was ignominiously defeated in the Persian Gulf war.

So Grenier was in Algiers in 1990-91, during my time there. This rang an immediate bell. I was pretty sure I knew him and which a Google Image search indeed confirmed. We met socially at US embassy events on a couple of occasions. I knew at the time that he was CIA—according to his Wikipedia page, he was the Algiers station chief—though forgot his name and had no idea about his subsequent postings.

One evening I went to the Hotel Saint-Georges for dinner and spotted him in the lobby with some louche-looking Algerians. We made eye contact and he abruptly looked away, indicating that he did not wish for me to come over and say hi.

BTW, what Grenier says about enraged Algerians ceasing to be after Saddam Hussein’s ignominious defeat is absolutely true. Everyone in Algeria was screaming bloody rage against the United States in the lead up to and during the Gulf war, but a week after it was over Révolution Africaine (the official FLN weekly) had an article in which one read “now that the Gulf war is over and forgotten…” (I saved the clipping, which I have filed away somewhere). And the July 4th reception at the US embassy that year was packed with the usual hundreds of Algerian invitees.

If Grenier’s views expressed in the op-ed are at all representative of CIA people these days, then that’s cause for some comfort.

À suivre, inshallah.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

And the fascistic Republican Party. Eons ago, before January 6th, I had pledged to focus less on American politics after the inauguration—and a consequent return to a semblance of normalcy in the White House, which we have indeed been happily observing; so far the Biden administration gets a grade of ‘A’ —and direct AWAV’s attentions to other pressing subjects, notably what’s happening in France as she enters a presidential election year. No such luck. I do indeed closely follow politics chez moi but have continued to do so obsessively with unfolding events outre-Atlantique, most recently of the impeachment trial, which I watched in part on CNN. The video footage of the January 6th insurrection exhibited by the House impeachment managers, which everyone has seen by now (if not, here and here), is devastating, confirming how close we were on that day to a bloodbath in the Capitol that would have, among many other things, decapitated the line of succession to the presidency—with the murder of Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi—thereby upending the certification of the Electoral College vote by the Senate, and paving the way for Trump to proclaim martial law. It was really that close.

It continues to defy belief that an insurrectionary mob—and one that was armed to boot—was able to reach the Capitol and then penetrate it. Even on the most violent days of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, GJs were not allowed to approach the Élysée palace, Palais Bourbon, or regalian ministries. Had any tried, the police would have employed any and all means to prevent them from doing so.

That the Republican Party in its overwhelming majority could continue to support Trump after January 6th, not to mention promote the QAnon adept Marjorie Taylor Greene, shows how far down the road to outright fascism that party has travelled. If one missed it, the conservative Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush’s speechwriter, matter of factly observed in a Washington Post column dated February 1st that “Trumpism is American fascism.” No less.

On the question of fascism in America, Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who has recently published a book on the broad topic, on how “American fascism isn’t going away.” In a course I teach to American undergraduates on European history, I devote part of a lecture on the interwar period to fascism and how to understand it, in which I stress, as does Jason Stanley, that it is less an ideology or regime type—though it can of course be this—than a world-view and way of doing politics, of an overriding will to power. Fascism, like populism, is a syndrome. In the lecture I enumerate sixteen features of fascism, adding, as an aside, that all but three or four applied in large part or in whole to the Trump phenomenon.

And then there is fascism’s mass base. The lead article in the February 11th issue of The New York Review of Books, “‘Be Ready to Fight’,” by Mark Danner, is on the January 6th insurrection. The lede: “Trumpism is driven by cruelty and domination even as its rhetoric claims grievance and victimization. The attack on the Capitol showed that Donald Trump’s army of millions will not just melt away when he leaves office.” This passage merits quoting:

Deafening paroxysms of jubilation and rage greeted this doctrinal statement of Trumpism, for who could better summarize the philosophy, such as it was, in fewer words? Trump as Rambo, as tank commander, motorcycle gang leader, and on and on. The imagery of Trumpism is about strength and cruelty and dominance even as the rhetoric is about loss and grievance and victimization: about what was taken and what must be seized back by strength. And we would have to bring that strength, for certain it was that the politicians would turn out to be traitors, just like all the rest. From that fateful ride down the gilt staircase in the pink-marbled lobby of Trump Tower five years before—Trumpism’s March on Rome—it had been about this: “Taking back the country.” Taking it back from the rapists and the killers, the undocumented and the illegitimate, the Black and the brown from “shithole countries” who should go back “where they came from.” Now it had all come down to this.

And this:

Donald Trump is not Caesar, but he has a will to power and a malignancy that our degraded institutions and corrupted politicians have been wholly unable to contain. His army of millions will not melt away. They will remain as a lurking poison in the political bloodstream, politicized and angry, ready to be activated, and their nihilistic rejection of the country’s institutions and laws will only grow more venomous. Millions of them are armed. Those who died in the coup will become the movement’s martyrs. Those arrested will become its heroes.

For more on the Zeitgeist of the January 6th mob, see the report in ProPublica on “what the Parler videos reveal,” plus this Twitter thread from Insider News “decod[ing] the symbols that Trump supporters brought with them, revealing some ongoing threats to US democracy.”

The NYT report on “Trump’s legacy: Voters who reject democracy and any politics but their own,” may also be read with profit.

France 2’s weekly news magazine Envoyé Spécial aired a 25-minute report on January 21st on Trump’s hardcore supporters—”les irréductibles”—with the reporter interviewing several, in Florida, Georgia, and Colorado, and following them around, listening to them vent their anger—an emotion strongly felt by all—resentments and hatreds, not to mention conspiracy theories and a view of the world and reality that is, needless to say, utterly antithetical to mine and no doubt to anyone reading this. It’s one of the best reports I’ve seen on Trump’s base and which may be viewed here.

Objectively speaking, these Trump people have nothing to be angry about or any good reason to hate people like us (i.e. me and AWAV readers). They lead reasonably comfortable middle class lives, with the financial resources to purchase their homes, high end pick-up trucks, arsenals of weapons, and whatever else they may fancy. And many of them live very well indeed, thank you very much. These are not Gilets Jaunes, who live from paycheck to paycheck and barely make it to the end of the month. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer underscored, the Trumpist mob on January 6th was not “low class.”

In terms of Weltanschauung and general intellect, the Trump base is naturally at one with Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose level of culture générale may be grasped in this video here. Not to sound like an intellectual snob or anything but seriously, how can people—particularly those who run for public office—be so f*cking stupid?? And for the House Republicans to put such an abject, thoroughly uneducated ignoramus on the Committee on Education?

The ignorance and stupidity—and penchant for fascism—could not attain the level that it has on the American right without the conservative media ecosystem, a.k.a. the Trumpist/Republican propaganda apparatus fostering an alternate reality, which has no equivalent in other Western democracies save a couple. A recent case in point (watch the video):

Jason Stanley, in the interview linked to above, says he thinks Tucker Carlson is a “likely future president.” No comment.

One big feature of the Trump/Republican base—and which was heavily represented on January 6th—is the evangelicals. We fully understand their weight as voters but I admit to having difficulty grasping their presence as shock troops in a violent insurrectionary movement. But such is indeed the case. See, e.g., this Vice News report on Christian imagery on January 6th, by a team of Columbia University researchers.

Rod Dreher, who is senior editor at The American Conservative—and is culturally and religiously conservative (he’s a Catholic convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church) but not a Trumper—had a most interesting report on “what [he] saw at the Jericho March” in Washington on December 12th (if you don’t know what the Jericho March is, see here).

It’s one thing to have to deal with the reality of a mass fascist mob in your polity, but when they’re religious fanatics brandishing the Bible (or Qur’an, or Torah, etc)—and are heavily armed—that makes them that much more dangerous and frightening.

One more piece, by historian Matthew Avery Sutton of Washington State University, in TNR: “The Capitol riot revealed the darkest nightmares of White evangelical America: How 150 years of apocalyptic agitation culminated in an insurrection.”

Back to the impeachment trial, it was a foregone conclusion that there weren’t going to be 17 Republican votes to convict. The Democrats certainly could have adopted a different approach to impeachment and “that could have made Republicans squirm,” as Stanford Law School professor Michael W. McConnell spelled out in an opinion piece in the NYT. But as David Frum convincingly argued, the efforts of the House impeachment managers “[will] do.” Whatever this or that pundit or Trump sycophant may opine, Trump—now definitively banished from Twitter (ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّٰهِ‎)—is toast. There’s not a chance he’ll make a successful comeback in 2024.

As for those House impeachment managers, there were some real revelations, for me and many others, notably the brilliant Jamie Raskin—who has serious lefty cred—and likewise brilliant Stacey Plaskett, who is an argument in itself for the US Virgin Islands becoming the 53rd state (after the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).

Cf. the whack jobs and crackpottery of Trump’s defense lawyers. When it comes to human capital, we are just so far superior to them.

À suivre.

UPDATE: The NYT has an article (Feb. 15th) on Adam Kinzinger, one of the ten Republican congresspersons who voted to impeach Trump. It begins:

As the Republican Party censures, condemns and seeks to purge leaders who aren’t in lock step with Donald J. Trump, Adam Kinzinger, the six-term Illinois congressman, stands as enemy No. 1 — unwelcome not just in his party but also in his own family, some of whom recently disowned him.

Two days after Mr. Kinzinger called for removing Mr. Trump from office following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, 11 members of his family sent him a handwritten two-page letter, saying he was in cahoots with “the devil’s army” for making a public break with the president.

“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!” they wrote. “You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!”

The author of the letter was Karen Otto, Mr. Kinzinger’s cousin, who paid $7 to send it by certified mail to Mr. Kinzinger’s father — to make sure the congressman would see it, which he did. She also sent copies to Republicans across Illinois, including other members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“I wanted Adam to be shunned,” she said in an interview.

The article has the letter in PDF. Do read it. It’s breathtaking.

2nd UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has a very good post mortem on the impeachment trial, “Convict him: This really shouldn’t be hard,” which I read after posting.

See also New School for Social Research history professor Eli Zaretsky’s LRB blog post, “The big lie.”

3rd UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Emma Green has an interview with Eric Metaxas—who, if one doesn’t know, is an NYC-based radio host, prolific author of savant-sounding books, a devout Christian, and Trump acolyte—who is convinced, entre autres, that the Democrats are pulling America in the direction of Nazi Germany. Sans blague. Metaxas is also a graduate of an Ivy League university (Yale), as are other high-profile Trump acolytes, e.g. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Kris Kobach—which all goes to show that one can be an excellent student and very bright but nonetheless be intellectually unhinged and generally off one’s rocker.

What all of these men have in common is devout religious faith—and which borders on fanaticism in the case of Metaxas and Hawley, and maybe the others too. It is the intense religiosity of close to half of the Republican electorate—and a large number of the party’s elected officials and representatives—that differentiates that party from conservative parties of government in other Western polities. And which—along with the gun culture—makes the Republican Party that much more dangerous.

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