Molly Crabapple has been rightly hailed in lefty circles for her activism and art, so it was a surprise, at least to me, when recently in the Guardian she criticized a not-quite-specified “Western left” for opposing military intervention in Syria.
“When Syrian activists and the Free Syrian Army began asking for weapons and no-fly zones in what actually was a fight for freedom, the Western left mostly looked away.
You’d think a leftist taking such a stance might feel compelled to note the horrific history of western military interventions and try to explain why this one would be different. But history may not be Crabapple’s strong suit; judging by her piece she seems to think the left’s anti-imperialism began during the Bush administration. She might have also explained why a no-fly zone wouldn’t lead to deeper involvement (perhaps deeper involvement is what she wants). For that matter, she might have explained why the left shouldn’t care that a no-fly zone, an act of war, would violate the U.N. charter.
But her piece isn’t about international law, or morality, or peace; it’s about compassion for the victims, which, unlike anti-imperialists, Crabapple has in spades. She cares, and wants you to know she cares.
“While Syrian women are reading the names of their dead in DC,” she said, defending her piece on Twitter, “white dudes in my timeline are saying they’re irrelevant cause geopolitics/CIA.” Let me ruin the suspense for you: the white dudes weren’t saying the dead don’t matter; they were objecting to her support for military intervention. Western white dudes are incorrigible that way, always opposing US imperialism in defiance of all the people of color overseas, who can’t seem to get enough of it.
The charge that opponents of military action don’t care about victims of slaughter is common, banal, downright Frummian. It’s beneath the need for rebuttal.
That said, thoughtful opponents of imperialism take seriously the fact that their position sometimes doesn’t align with that of some of the people fighting to be free, who understandably want help, any help. It’s the interventionists’ least bad argument: if the endangered people are asking for help, how can it be imperialism? But it can be. It is. And it destroys.
I’ll quote a portion of Vijay Prashad’s “Letter to a Syrian Friend Who Said: ‘Your Opposition to the US Attack on Syria Means You Support the Asad Regime,’” but please read all of it.
History offers you no hope of success along this path. On the wings of empire can come only grief. Recent interventions, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, have not ended well for its people. In the month of August 2013, 804 people died in Iraq—numbers that rival the death rates of the worst period of sectarian violence. Libya’s security situation is torturous for its people, with assassinations and random violence the order of the day. The people of Afghanistan, and their twin in Yemen, face untold misery through night raids and drone strikes, and with few of the main human obstacles undone by the occupation.
And Gary Younge’s magnificent column The Innocence of the Liberal Hawk, about the NATO regime change war in Libya.
The call from Libyan rebels for a no-fly zone matters. Those who are resisting Qaddafi deserve our support. But they don’t single-handedly determine the nature of it. Solidarity is not a process by which you unquestioningly forfeit responsibility for your own actions to another; it involves an assessment of what is prudent and what is possible…
Far from being a knee-jerk response to Western military action, opposition to the bombing marks a considered reflection on the West’s knee-jerk impulse to mistake war for foreign policy. This impulse follows a well-worn circular logic in three parts: (1) Something must be done now. (2) This is something. (3) So we must do it. And that something invariably involves bombing.
Such sophistry treats “now” as its own abstract point in time: a moment that bears no legacy and carries no consequences. Amnesia and ignorance are the privileges of the powerful. But the powerless, who live with the ramifications, do not have the luxury of forgetting. They do not forget Shatila, Falluja, Abu Ghraib or Jenin—to name but a few horrific war crimes in which the West was complicit.
Some people claimed that Crabapple was referring not to the antiwar left but to the pro-Assad “left.” I’m not sure why she’d bother criticizing 14 people; indeed it’s clear what left she means. “The left did not see Syria,” she said. “We saw Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Others claimed she wasn’t actually advocating military intervention. But to criticize people for opposing intervention is to support it. And if she doesn’t support more US military intervention, nothing separates her from the heartless left, other than her exquisite empathy.
To mark the anniversary, a group of activists, mostly Syrian, read the names of the dead in front of the White House. In her Guardian piece, Crabapple covers the event and bemoans the lack of compassion on the left. It’s true that the plight of Syrian victims has not become a popular cause on the left. The same can be said of the plight of the victims of all the wars in Africa. (How long would it take to read the names of the four million plus people who’ve died in Congo?)
Few are the urgent causes overseas to which the western left has shown sufficient commitment. That’s because the suffering is great and the left is weak and solutions to slaughter that has begun are elusive. And because the western left, consisting of human beings, suffers from selfishness, nationalism, and racism. Recall the “none of our business” rhetoric employed by some American antiwar leaders during the debate over President Obama’s bid to bomb Syria.
Still, it’s odd to blast the left for the failure to help Syrians. It’s not the left that’s resettled only a few dozen refugees. It’s not the left that put in place the “terrorism bars” that are hindering resettlement. It’s not the left that refuses to include Iran in the negotiations, hurting the chances of arriving at a political resolution or at least a pause in the fighting that would allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It’s not the left that seems content to let both sides “hemorrhage to death.”
And it’s not the left, whatever its considerable faults, that has repeatedly bombed, brutalized, occupied, humiliated, and stolen from the people of the Middle East.