That is what I am, apparently. A “pathetic empire simp.” At least according to Australian writer Caitlin Johnstone.
This insult came on Twitter after I criticized her analysis of the Russian war against Ukraine by correctly pointing out that she has never been antiwar, only anti-American-war. Other wars carried out by despotic, authoritarian or imperialistic governments never get criticized in any way by Johnstone except, perhaps, occasionally in what amounts to mealy mouthed mental gymnastics, which generally end up impugning the victims of war crimes as “head-chopping jihadists” or neo-Nazis, while absolving the criminals. This isn’t a lie. A simple check into her exhaustive Twitter feed or “daily writings” demonstrates this.
Johnstone’s observations aren’t in a vacuum. Real flesh and blood human beings are in harms way thanks to Russia’s bombing campaign and invasion of Ukraine. Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is in the crosshairs. Thousands of Russian antiwar activists have been sent to prison for protesting the war, which is not be called a war but a “military intervention” under threat of prosecution of the Russian Federation.
Johnstone and her ilk represent a particular cynical strain within the erstwhile left, primarily in the US. It is the result of decades of betrayal by American institutions and the ruling, capitalist establishment. Decades of duplicity, corruption, wars of domination, toppling democratic governments, militaristic cruelty, racism, misogyny, classism, exploitation, ecocide and horrendous crimes against humanity.
But this terrible legacy of tyrannical and brutal state power didn’t appear to galvanize this set to do the hard work of international solidarity with ordinary people. What it did appear to do was cause them to think in strictly binary terms when it comes to geopolitics. Thus, solidarity was to be built with the leaders of states who had been declared enemies of the American Empire.
This solidarity does not extend, however, to the people of those states. On the contrary, these people are faceless and without agency. All of their aspirations for democracy, whether it is in Syria, Egypt or Ukraine, have been painted as pseudo “colour revolutions,” entirely constructed and implemented by the American intelligence sector. The ordinary people who gathered in squares and marched peacefully down streets were, apparently, “pathetic empire simps” for demanding an end to the tyranny of their own governments. Puppets of the American Empire who should have been grateful to their murderous leaders simply because they were the enemies of the most powerful imperial force on the planet.
This horrendous “logic” is how so many of them were able to run defense for Assad in Syria as he, with the help of Putin, bombed hospitals, schools, mosques and entire neighbourhoods to rubble using the same lie the US used to carry out war crimes: the bogus “war on terror.” When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen or Israel commits crimes against the Palestinians, which it does on a daily basis, the erstwhile left rightly condemns it. Yet this same set jumped through hoops to deny any crime Assad committed against Palestinians in Syria. And the fact that Assad was instrumental in running CIA black sites during the Iraq War gets completely deleted from their data banks. This same defense has been extended to the CCP’s treatment of Uighurs.
This is a cynical and caustic strain of politic discourse which has infected nearly all levels of civic discourse in the US. From Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi to Donald Trump and liberal, millionaire know-nothings like Bill Maher. It thrives on invective, a generalized misanthropy, kneejerk reaction, and conspiratorial thinking, which explains the obsession with the so-called “deep state.” Of course, no serious political analyst would deny the existence or influence of clandestine, mendacious and malignant unelected agencies like the CIA, FBI or NSA. But the obsession with these nefarious agencies tends to occlude the power of mass movements to confront them and the larger problems looming for our species and countless others.
This little interaction proved something else that many colleagues and comrades have been saying about Ms. Johnstone for a long time. Dare to criticize her, even mildly, and she will respond with churlish insults and invective. Her entire modus operandi has been snark and vituperation and, as my friend and comrade Dan Hanrahan pointed out, “custom made for the sewer tunnels of social media.” I will admit that my criticism may have come across as harsh or sarcastic. But did I call her a name or use an ad hominem against her? And have we become that jaded that to even raise this question would invite a slurry of mocking laugh emojis? Perhaps, I fear, we have.
Unsurprisingly, many of her fans seem to enjoy this the most about her and follow that lead. Since this one small interaction I have received several hate emails from people using language that verges on threats. Now, this does not include all of her followers. I have several friends, in fact, who seem enamoured with her many of her observations. And it should be said that she is often correct.
She is right that the American Empire is the most powerful state force on the planet at the moment. And I have written about its evil at length for years. But this does not mean that other brutal, powerful imperial or colonial state entities do not exist. This is, whether consciously or not, a profound misunderstanding of this set, which tends to view the world narrowly from the lens of a 1980s geopolitical prism. The US may still be the most powerful, economically and militarily, but it is losing that power in real time on a planet whose biosphere is rapidly destabilizing and where the predations and loyalties of late capitalism are in a state of flux. No matter how many genuflections this segment of the online, erstwhile left perform, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, it is the same enemy everywhere: the elite, capitalist, ruling class in EVERY country.
Building international solidarity requires real work. It requires more than internet searches or repeating the opposing narrative to the American imperial one as if it is absolute truth. It requires more than just settling for a “multipolar world” as if that were the only alternative to a unipolar one. It requires listening to real flesh and blood human beings who have lived under despotic regimes, even the ones that are the sworn enemies of the American Empire. It requires adhering to the principles of antiwar without equivocation. And daring to dream that a better world IS possible and that we must fight for it shoulder to shoulder with other human beings, rather than spend our time justifying the actions and machinations of the powerful. This, I fear, is a bridge too far for Ms. Johnstone and many of her followers. But it isn’t for this “pathetic simp.”
Kenn Orphan, September 2022
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*Title photo is of a Russian antiwar protestor. Thousands of Russian antiwar protestors have thrown in prison.