December 12, 2023
From Internationalist 360

When Goebbels, the brain behind Nazi propaganda, heard culture being discussed, he brought out his revolver. That shows that the Nazis, who were and are the most tragic expression of imperialism and of its thirst for domination–even if they were all degenerates like Hitler, had a clear idea of the value of culture as a factor of resistance to foreign domination.

Amílcar Cabral

Patrick Lawrence
Intifada in Gaza Strip, December 1987. (Efi Sharir, Israel Press and Photo Agency, Dan Hadani collection, National Library of Israel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

The events of the past seven days are sobering no matter where you look. The Israelis’ daily attacks in southern Gaza, after telling Gazans in the north to seek refuge there, strips bare the apartheid state’s intent to ethnic-cleanse the Gaza Strip and scatter to the winds those of its people who survive.

Is there some word other than “genocide” we should use to name this horror, this stain upon the consciences of everyone who does not raise a voice against it?

It is also clear as of last week that the Biden regime’s amoral support for the Israelis’ bloodlust in Gaza is destabilizing America and hastening the collapse from within that this nation has feared since it declared itself the United States.

Think about those outlandish hearings in the House last week, when three university presidents were cynically cornered so their inquisitors could frame them as apologists for some imaginary genocide of Jews.

Think about these unlawful definitions of anti–Semitism that apologists for Israel want to see adopted as federal law and enforced in universities and a great variety of public institutions. Think about the anti–Semitism hustle, as Ajamu Baraka calls it — these ridiculous but ubiquitous claims that anti–Semitism is suddenly everywhere.

Think about the arrests of those demonstrating for the Palestinian cause, the firing of professors and administrators, of doctors and other professionals, and the wholesale suppression of First Amendment rights. Think about the Biden regime’s announcement last Friday that it will ship arms to Israel without any congressional review.

Think, then, about the ever-increasing imperial distance from which the reigning regime operates, and about the decay of America’s Constitution, its Bill of Rights, its Congress, its courts, its educational institutions, its public discourse and its common language, its ideals. How shall we understand what is happening to America and its people?

In any gathering of the like-minded these matters are all that is talked about. They sit upon one’s shoulders like a burdensome weight. What shall we do, people ask. Whatever one does it seems not enough. We are adrift in a sea of enforced indecency and irrationality.

Turning to Rudolf Rocker

Rudolf Rocker in back row, second from left, with several London anarchists in 1912. Rocker’s arm lies over Milly Witkop’s shoulder. (Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Struggling with all this, as I admit to doing, my mind returned this past week to Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist whose great work, Nationalism and Culture, is now hard to find but a great reward if you manage to locate a copy via the used-book sites. Here is the erudite Rocker thinking through the relationship between the modern state, in this case the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what he calls, in catch-all fashion, culture:

“So the unified national state was established under the dominion of an absolute monarchy. Spain became the first of the great powers of the world… But with the triumph of the unified Spanish state and the brutal suppression of all local rights and liberties there dried up the sources of all material and intellectual culture, and the country sank into a condition of hopeless barbarism. Even the inexhaustible streams of gold and silver that flowed in from the young Spanish colonies in America could not check the cultural decline: They only hastened it.”

This is Rocker developing one of the arguments that make Nationalism and Culture an enduring work. State power and culture — which, to simplify Rocker’s definition, means all that makes humankind human and enables humanity’s survival and advance — are inimical. The state, he argues, cannot ultimately abide forms of spontaneous culture that arise by way of human communities.

“The state, Rocker argues, cannot ultimately abide forms of spontaneous culture that arise by way of human communities.”

Absolutist regimes are especially intolerant of authentic culture. In history they are given to destroying all forms of culture in the name of one or another kind of national unity. This is necessary for the continued exercise of power.

The great empires, Rocker points out, are often fertile sites of high culture. “But let us not deceive ourselves,” Rocker writes:

“The high art we may associate with empires is typically the residue of previous times. Autocracies and imperial regimes are in the business of destroying culture, not cultivating it.”

This means, if I read Rocker correctly, that in late-imperial phases all cultural institutions must be made to serve the state. Universities, museums, media, the important industrial sectors — we can count all these as cultural entities and note the cases wherein they are required to reflect the state’s ideology and conform to its dictates.

Language, an important cultural artifact, becomes a contentious question in this context. If language arises from the community that comes to speak it, the state determines to control and manipulate language so as to enlist communities in the state’s cause, the cause of nationalism and power.

Rocker, let us not forget, was an anarchist and so had it in for the state and any kind of nationalist ideology a state may conjure and enforce. Even if one has little interest in anarchism (as I do not), I don’t see that this devalues by an iota all that Rocker has to tell us about ourselves, especially but not only now, by way of the core confrontation between state power and culture that he delineates throughout history.

It is no kind of stretch to understand the liberal authoritarian project as a case of state power exerting itself upon those it governs — or rules, as the case comes to be. It is more or less all there — the enforcement of officially decreed versions of all events, the proscribing of all alternative versions, the punishment or banishment of those who deviate even slightly from the orthodoxy, the subservience of media to the state, the mutilation of language to serve the state’s purpose.

Corinna Barnard, my colleague at Consortium News, published a superbly to-the-point piece Sunday on the congressional hearings last week wherein the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania were subjected to four hours of abusive questioning pointedly intended to show the rest of us the consequences of maintaining our sanity amid a grotesque psyop to convince us that First Amendments rights must be swept aside as the only way to rid ourselves of some rampant anti–Semitism that now besets us.

“Think about the ever-increasing imperial distance from which the reigning regime operates.”

The twisting of language to serve the state’s purpose reached a fully absurd irrationality during those hearings. There is no recorded case of anyone on any university campus calling for “the genocide of Jews,” but no matter.

Here is Barnard’s lead:

“The U.S. is currently in the chokehold of a monstrous effort to fixate the nation on fears of an entirely hypothetical genocide when a real one is taking place.

Last week a House committee redolent of the McCarthyist days of the notorious House Un–American Activities Committee conducted an inquisition of three university presidents about their toleration of terms such as ‘intifada,’  which The New York Times, in its coverage, described as “an Arabic word that means uprising and that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.”…

The meeting created a sinkhole for the principle of free speech, in which words used to express the cause of Palestinian resistance were twisted into an evil intention towards Jews, at the exact time when the Israel military is perpetrating genocide…. “

This is the American state, broadly defined and well on its way toward a form of apple-pie absolutism, forcing distorted meanings not merely on three university administrators but on all of us.

From Speech to Thought

Ceasefire in Gaza protest in New York City on Dec. 9. (Pamela Drew, Flickr,CC BY-NC 2.0)

We learn from this occasion that the censorship regime with which we are now required to live is about more than eliminating or banning speech. Silence is only one of its objectives. It is as much concerned with controlling what it is permissible to say and what the language we speak must mean.

It is a hop-skip to being told what we are allowed to think.

Here I will be crystal clear: It cannot be made a crime to hate someone else, for whatever reason, or to announce one’s hatred in public. These are our rights, repellently exercised or otherwise. If the ACLU had not devolved into a nest of identitarian flunkies, it would say this plainly and your columnist would not have to.

Since when, in this connection, has it been the purview of Congress to vote on resolutions such as the one it passed last week, 311–14, in which it “clearly and firmly states that anti–Zionism is anti–Semitism?” It also condemns “From the River to the Sea,” the Palestinian slogan (which I find touchingly poetic), calling it “a rallying cry for the eradication of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Since never. This irresponsible conduct in the national legislature is two things.

One, it is a measure of America’s swoon into another of its purification rituals. From the 17th century Boston hangings through the various red scares, Russiagate, and all the rest, it is always the same theme: We must remove from among us those elements that are impure.

This is done by requiring everyone to denounce or repudiate what they are told to denounce or repudiate, and to do so with prescribed degree of vehemence and illogic. One is otherwise exiled, one or another way, from the circle of the Elect.

Two, the House’s idiotic resolution is an indication of how apartheid Israel’s condemnable campaign of murder and cruelty in Gaza has catalyzed the American state’s exercise of power over American culture in the way Rudolf Rocker would have meant the term.

“It cannot be made a crime to hate someone else, for whatever reason, or to announce one’s hatred in public. These are our rights, repellently exercised or otherwise.”

In this connection, we now watch as wealthy Wall Street investors, private equity executives, and others whose primary preoccupation is capital, withdraw or threaten to withdraw very considerable sums committed to university endowments if these institutions do not conform to their views on Israel and the Palestinian cause.

Think about this. Institutions of higher learning are supposed to be the source, or one source, of a healthy society’s dynamism. Now we have money people telling these institutions how to run themselves? This is what decline looks like. This is how America’s official support for apartheid Israel hastens it.

We are all under attack, this being the case, not only those who are censored or otherwise singled out for punishment or banishment. This is everyone’s confrontation with power. Reading Rocker helps us understand the magnitude of this encounter.

“What I keep coming back to is the thought that none of us were [sic] raised or prepared to live in an Insane World,” a reader who goes by Roundball Shaman wrote in the comment thread of a recent column. “There is only one way to deal with insanity. Stay sane ourselves.”

It is a start, under the circumstances.

 Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, lecturer and author, most recently of Journalists and Their Shadows, available from Clarity Press or via Amazon.  Other books include Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored.