'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Farewell, Chalmers Johnson 

Today, we learned the sad news. Chalmers Johnson is dead at the age of 79. Over the last 15 years, he was an indefatigable opponent of US imperialism, after having been a Cold War liberal who celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union and supported the Vietnam War. In Blowback, he identified the pathological aspect of US foreign policy:

In Blowback, I set out to explain why we are hated around the world. The concept blowback does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes - as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 - the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback. In the first book in this trilogy, I tried to provide some of the historical background for understanding the dilemmas we as a nation confront today, although I focused more on Asia - the area of my academic training - than on the Middle East.

In this summarization, provided by him in a subsequent book, Nemesis, Johnson points out an often forgotten fact about Blowback, the fact that he developed his analysis from his study of US involvement in Asia, and not the more highly publicized US involvement in the Middle East. It is a sobering thing to remember, as it suggests that we remain vulnerable to retaliation, whether violent or economic, from people in other regions of the world, unless there is a radical, almost impossible imagine, transformation in US policy.

In recent years, I think that there was a tendency to see Johnson as a leftist. He wasn't. The willingness of some to perceive him as such points towards something that I have observed in other contexts, a tendency to confuse anti-imperialism with leftism. For example, he never repudiated his Cold War hostility towards the USSR. Rather, he was an American exceptionalist of a particular kind. Like Pat Buchanan, he believed that the USSR posed an existential threat to the US, and, like Buchanan, saw no purpose to interventionism upon the dissipation of that threat. Much like Buchanan (and Gore Vidal as well, and, even, arguably, Kurt Vonnegut), he believed that the US was exceptional because of the example it set for other countries and peoples around the world through its domestic policies and values, even if the three of them would argue vigorously over what they should be. In short, an exceptionalism that was isolationist.

Unlike Buchanan (and possibly, even Vidal), Johnson was equally concerned about the consequences of US interventionism for the people subjected to it. His mid-1990s visit to Okinawa radicalized him as he was dismayed by the US imperial arrogance associated its military presence on the island:

I first went to Okinawa in 1996. I was invited by then-Governor Ota in the wake of the rape incident. I’ve devoted my life to the study of Japan, but like many Japanese, many Japanese specialists, I had never been in Okinawa. I was shocked by what I saw. It was the British Raj. It was like Soviet troops living in East Germany, more comfortable than they would be back at, say, Oceanside, California, next door to Camp Pendleton. And it was a scandal in every sense. My first reaction -- I’ve not made a secret of it -- that I was, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Cold Warrior. My first explanation was that this is simply off the beaten track, that people don't come down here and report it. As I began to study the network of bases around the world and the incidents that have gone with them and the military coups that have brought about regime change and governments that we approve of, I began to realize that Okinawa was not unusual; it was, unfortunately, typical.

These bases, as I say, are spread everywhere. The most recent manifestation of the American military empire is the decision by the Pentagon now, with presidential approval, of course, to create another regional command in Africa. This may either be at the base that we have in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa. It may well be in the Gulf of Guinea, where we are prospecting for oil, and the Navy would very much like to put ourselves there. It is not at all clear that we should have any form of American military presence in Africa, but we're going to have an enlarged one.

Invariably, remember what this means. Imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent of the governed. It doesn't ask for the consent of the governed. We talk about the spread of democracy, but we're talking about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle. That's a contradiction in terms. It doesn't work. Any self-respecting person being democratized in this manner starts thinking of retaliation.

Not surprisingly, Johnson's experience is a central feature of Blowback, and he was a tireless advocate for the departure of US troops from Okinawa until his death. As an area studies scholar with an emphasis upon East Asia, he respected the cultures of the countries that he studied, and highlighted how they had been economically successfully since the end of World War II by ignoring the emerging neoliberal policies of the World Bank and the IMF. Given that most people don't recognize that Blowback is focused primarily on Asia, it is not surprising that this aspect of the book is even less well known. He acknowledged that China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan had relied upon significant state intervention to economically modernize, and that the US was actively seeking to prevent others from following the same path. Indeed, he considered these policies to be as perilous as the ones associated with covert operations, expressing alarm at nationalistic hostility to the US in East and South Asia in response to the currency devaluations and foreign asset sales facilitated by the IMF to address the 1998 currency crisis.

In other words, Johnson was no orientalist with an Asian emphasis. If anything, he could be said to be an indigenous modernist, meaning that he considered it impossible for anyone to escape the modernization process, but that countries and peoples should be permitted, as much as possible, to go through it autonomously. Such a perspective was consistent with his belief that the massive economic and military infrastructure created by the US during the Cold War was an anomaly and should have been dismantled. Johnson may have been no leftist, but his analytical rigor and personal integrity demanded respect. In the introduction to Blowback, he describes how he disdained the protests against the Vietnam War at UC Berkeley because he discovered, after a trip to the library, that none of the books about Vietnam had been checked out by anyone to read. In classic academic elitist style, he concluded that there was no reason to pay attention to such know nothings. But, from the vantage point of thirty years later, he admitted that they had been right, and he had been wrong. From such a mea culpa, he commenced to write his own book of revelations about the imperial hubris of the US, which has only gotten more extreme with the passage of time.

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