Be Independent! No, Not Like That
plus a catalog of excuses for America's crimes
Being professionally heterodox has probably made it easier to make a name for myself, but it comes with its own set of hangups. There’s a tendency to sort anyone who steps outside of the usual partisan lines into the same bucket, despite the fact that defying orthodoxy should theoretically not consign you to any particular opinion at all. Typically, this pigeonholing is the work of people who are very much orthodox something, usually orthodox liberal Democrats - they’ll claim that anyone who is not exactly what they are is therefore necessarily the opposite of what they are, which is usually a conservative Republican. This is how you get people claiming that Matt Taibbi is a “far-right” journalist. (To add another layer to this onion, by saying that Taibbi is not a far-right journalist, in the eyes of some I have just marked myself as far-right myself.) This dynamic also exists on the right; the conservative Christian David French is frequently called a liberal by his many enemies on the right. None of this is particularly surprising. The orthodox tend to think only in terms of dueling orthodoxies, and if they’re sure you’re not a Yook, you must be a Zook. So it goes.
The trouble, in my experience, is that this tendency to treat heterodoxy as a particular club of people rather than as a disparate set of often-conflicting tendencies is found among a lot of the capital-H Heterodox themselves. That whole world of dissident leftists and new-right conservatives and the “Intellectual Dark Web” and radical centrism… in my experience, the commitment to actual independence in those corners is largely illusory. There are people who really do care about resistance to orthodoxy as such, and there are people who maintain an ability to respect someone else’s independence despite disagreeing with them on the issue they’re being independent about. (If that’s coherent.) But for many people, independent thinking and an attachment to openness in argument is just another team to join.
There’s this dynamic among people who consume heterodox media, certainly, and that’s the larger part of the issue. There’s also people who produce heterodox content, which is its own set of issues. I don’t want to be arch here, but I have to speak in generalities because I don’t want to publicize any specific private exchanges. But I’ve often gotten, from the heterodox political world, an attitude of the type “I love how independent you are, I love what a free thinker you are, I love it when you really rip into identity politics, but that Marxism stuff, that’s disqualifying.” To which there’s a few things to say. First, that the criticism of identity politics is in fact an expression of the Marxism. More importantly… if you admire my independence and free thinking, isn’t it very odd to be so deeply offended by the things I believe that you disagree with? That’s what independence is! That’s the meaning of free thinking, of being free to think things that not everyone will admire. I’m not talking about just disagreeing here - of course people are free to admire my work in general and forcefully reject some of my opinions. What rankles is thinking that those views are entirely disqualifying while admiring my independence and championing free thinking as a general virtue. “I value independence when it produces people who believe just the same as I do” is a very strange way to think, a self-defeating way.
In the last year or two there was a schism within the whole heterodox thing over the Covid vaccines. You could see this most clearly in the feud between the anti-vaxxer Bret Weinstein and Quillette founder Claire Lehmann. This is very much not my world, but I noted the way that Weinstein and others routinely attacked Lehmann for continuing the defend the vaccines. Weinstein, one of the original “Intellectual Dark Web” members, repeatedly talked about Lehmann coming back to the tribe, coming to her senses, etc. And I could only think to myself, if you’re so proud of yourself for engendering dissent, why are you acting as though supporting vaccination is a red line that can’t be crossed? That IDW article defines the group in part by saying “they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject.” Yet Lehmann found herself banished from the ranks of the right-minded by refusing to accept deranged conspiracy theories about the vaccines. That does not seem like a real commitment to independence, to me.
I’ve made my own political views very clear. I wrote it all down so that people understood. And I am what I am and am not what I am not. I don’t want anyone to operate any under illusions about what I do and don’t believe. I’m a leftist with standard leftist views on economics and foreign policy. I’ve become heterodox in that many on the left have abandoned the left’s traditional attachment to civil liberties and procedural fairness, which I have maintained. My critiques of liberal and left practices may be convenient for conservatives and libertarians and moderates, and I’m happy if people like that get something out of my writing and want to support me. But they should do so with a full understanding of what I think. So click above if you have to.
This past Thanksgiving I shared a basic fact about me - that I hate the United States for its sins in the world. This led to a lot of anguish in the comments and many theatrical demands to cancel subscriptions. This latter move is an entirely pointless endeavor: it’s significantly easier for you to cancel your own subscription than for me to do it for you, so it always strikes me as a petulant distraction. Either way, people were big mad around here because I said things to them that they didn’t want to hear. Now that’s fine; I take and have always taken a great deal of criticism in my own comments section. I didn’t go on a banning and deleting spree despite the fact that people were very clearly attempting to be personally insulting. Go ahead, criticize me some more, I’ve had these foreign policy views my whole life. But the insistence that I had crossed some sort of line was another data point indicating how many people support independence only when it’s emotionally convenient for them. If you don’t support the expression of that independence when I say things you really don’t agree with, did you ever really support my independence at all? And what does the emotionalism you’re feeling tell you about this issue?
If you just want me to own the libs, I guess I get it. I’m very good at owning the libs. But there’s an awful lot of lib-owning out there that you could access from people who really do just own the libs. In contrast, if you actually value my independence, rather than my tendency to gore your favorite ox, then I think you should have more patience and be willing to criticize without as much rancor and without the threats to pull your subscription. If you think I believe things that are so bad that you can’t support me financially, dropping your subscription is certainly a move that’s available to you. But you should reflect on what the boundaries are of your endorsement of free thinking, of independence, of heterodoxy, of contrarian thinking. It’s very easy to support all of those things when they consistently result in agreement. But in that case, did that support ever really have much deeper meaning?
Now I’m going to follow this with a list of ways that people dissemble and prevaricate about American foreign policy. Those of you who know you won’t like it could always just give it a skip. It’s not like you have to wait long for more stuff from me. Or maybe you should read it and think it over. The choice is yours.
Typical Rhetorical Ploys to Avoid Acknowledging America’s Guilt in Foreign Countries
That was the past. No, it wasn’t. America’s crimes in the world continue today. In the recent past, you have all of the horrors of the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the Honduran coup that Hillary Clinton supported, and all manner of covert operations in places like Syria. The drone war has been reduced, but still continues, particularly in Somalia. We are right now using our weapons, funds, and diplomatic power to shield Saudi Arabia from international consequences for its horrific war on Yemen. Treating America’s misdeeds like they all happened in black and white is perhaps the core technique used to escape the uncomfortable feelings associated with confronting our conduct; it allows someone to acknowledge bare historical facts without feeling compelled to grapple with our nature in the present.
Weaponized ignorance. “I don’t/didn’t know that happened.” That’s your problem to solve. You’re a citizen of this country; learn its history. And now you know.
Whataboutism/“Reverse” Whataboutism. Deflecting talk about the crimes of America with talk about the crimes of other countries, typically the Soviet Union. An ironic ploy, given how often defenders of the American war machine level it against critics of war. If it’s an unacceptable maneuver when we’re talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it should be an unacceptable maneuver when I’m talking to you about America’s support for atrocities in El Salvador. The “whataboutism” dodge is typically an attempt to ensure that America’s bad deeds are never the topic of conversation. And when someone makes that accusation, the immediate question should be, when will we talk about America’s crimes?
The intermediaries make it OK. America tends (tends) to not do the killing itself. Instead we'll find and arm the death squads and maybe give them a hit list and say good luck. That defense doesn't work in a court of law if you get someone to kill your wife, and it doesn't work here.
“All countries commit atrocities.” First, that’s not how morality works. Second, even if I wanted to be generous in accepting some states as equivalents or near-equivalents in crimes of foreign policy, the United States remains a massive outlier in this regard. Most countries have gotten along fine without routinely deposing legitimate governments, installing dictators, arming factions they know to be committing atrocities, opportunistically participating in the drug trade, or killing civilians with drones. Almost any country has some historical crimes in its record, but essentially none have committed them on the scale of the United States, with the regularity of the United States, and as free from accountability as the United States. And it wouldn't absolve us if they did.
Demand for unachievable rigor. When someone insists that the evidence isn't sufficient for confirming known American crimes, and erects standards for establishing the truth so high they can’t possibly be met. This is how, for example, people continued to deny America’s role in deposing Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalling the murderous Shah in Iran despite the fact that the documentary evidence was overwhelming. (The United States finally came clean in 2013.)
“So and so was an illegitimate ruler.” The claim that it was OK that a given country had its leadership deposed/couped because the leadership wasn't legitimate to begin with. First, this is usually not true. Second, it’s irrelevant - the fact that a country’s ruler or ruling party was not established through democratic means does not imply that the United States therefore has the right to install whatever government it wants. Whenever you’re confronted with the United States deciding to change the government of another nation - such as when we decapitated the Libyan government in 2011, leaving the country in the hands of feuding warlords and turning it into an open-air slave market - ask yourself, would we allow Honduras to do this? Would we allow Pakistan to do this? Would we allow Cambodia to do this? If we couldn’t justify another country deciding to change the government of a sovereign state, how can we justify doing it ourselves?
We are allowed to do these things because we are so free. First, we are in fact not so free. Indices of human freedom, such as the Human Freedom Index, consistently do not rank us among the freest countries in the world. More to the point, this again is not how morality works. Being good in some ways does not excuse being bad in other ways. I’m never convinced by people who argue that the United States is the most moral nation on earth, but even if I was, it wouldn’t excuse deposing governments, killing civilians, crushing trade unions….
There are others. In general, I’m much more impressed by people who simply say something along the lines of “my country, right or wrong.” I think it’s childish and immoral to simply excuse your country’s bad behavior on the grounds that it’s your country, but it’s an internally-coherent perspective that doesn’t entail ignoring a vast amount of evidence of historical misdeeds. “I acknowledge my country’s flaws but ultimately am an American” is a fine thing to think, if you are committed to ending those flaws, rather than using that statement as a blanket way to avoid responsibility.
If you would like to learn something about America’s conduct in the world, here’s a 2014 list of thirty-five American misdeeds that provides a good overview. You might also consider the book Legacy of Ashes by Timothy Weiner, for a history of the CIA, or US Intelligence and the Nazis, which details the shocking degree to which the American intelligence community protected and hid ex-Nazis and used them to support their own ends. I’m afraid there’s plenty to learn.