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(DV) Ash: What's a Liberal?







What’s a Liberal? 
by Gabriel Ash
October 30, 2006

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Occasionally, I wonder. What’s a liberal?

Thanks to Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin, I recently found a compelling answer. Ackerman and Gitlin say that liberals stand for:

[T]he great principle of liberalism: that every citizen is entitled by right to the elementary means to a good life. We believe passionately that societies should afford their citizens equal treatment under the law -- regardless of accidents of birth, race, sex, property, religion, ethnic identification, or sexual disposition . . . .


Public commitment to reason and evidence is the bedrock of a pluralist democracy. [1]

So I thought to myself: wow! If that’s the definition of a liberal, then I surely am one. 

Then it occurred to me to list a couple of very dissimilar examples of victimization that happened within the last six years.

1) The U.S. invaded two countries. In both countries the invasions deposed governments that used to be U.S. allies. Both countries happen to have been involved before in a number of wars, all fought either against the U.S. or with the instigation of the U.S., or both. That includes the Afghan-Soviet war (precipitated by the Carter Administration), the Iran-Iraq war (egged on by the Carter and Reagan Administrations), the First Gulf War (into which Iraq was apparently lured by the Bush I administration), the sanctions regime (led by the Clinton administration), and the two current wars initiated by Bush II. Estimated total death count of all these wars is between four and five million people, with above half a million attributed to the latest aggressions. [2] (Victims: Iraqis and Afghanis)

2) While the U.S. government pumped billions of dollars into its two latest wars, it also de-funded the infrastructural work needed to protect New Orleans from hurricanes. Having appointed a nincompoop to destroy the federal disaster relief agency from within, it used Hurricane Katrina to effectively wage war on the black and poor population of New Orleans, occupying the city with military forces, and then using the opportunity created by the hurricane to cleanse the undesirable population, clearing the land for high value development. [3] (Victims: the poor black residents of New Orleans)

3) A group of epidemiologists, believing that, as our liberals profess to believe, public policy should be grounded in reason and evidence, conducted twice a rigorous mortality survey in Iraq . The surveys confirm that the current war in Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqis. Their research was immediately questioned, ridiculed and dismissed by dozens of journalists, pundits and politicians, none of whom can tell a Poisson distribution form a shoe. [4] (Victims: the researchers and the American public)

4) Israel, a client state utterly dependent on U.S. funding, refusing to accept “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” (U.N.S.C. 242), chose to maintain its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza . To subdue the population, Israel precipitated an armed revolt by shooting a million bullets at unarmed demonstrators, then responded to the revolt by transforming the Occupied Territories into a series of enclaves that are free shooting areas for helicopter gunships, F-16s, and Israeli police and soldiers. [5] In these enclaves, over four million locked up residents enjoy the protection of no law, not even the minimum stipulated by the Geneva Conventions. [6] They can be --and are -- killed, arrested, abused, beaten, searched, expropriated, imprisoned indefinitely, etc. at the whim of Israeli security forces who act as legislators, judges and executioners. They are for all practical purpose living interned in huge concentration camps built on their homeland and surrounded with walls and barbed wire. Since 2000, Israel killed 4,500 Palestinians, of which 20% were children, wounded 30,000, destroyed 7,700 homes, uprooted 120,000 trees, and confiscated 250,000 dunums of private land. [7] As a result of this internment, the Palestinian economy was decimated, leaving Palestinians malnourished and dehydrated. While Israelis fill pools with Palestinian water, Palestinians have only two-thirds of the amount of water deemed minimal by the World Health Organization. [8] (Victims: Palestinians)

5) A liberal American professor who thinks a regime change in Israel is long overdue accused some other American Liberals, naming and quoting a few names, of compromising their principles out of excessive attachment to Israel. [9]  (Victims: Paul Berman, Peter Beinart, Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Thomas Friedman, Jacob Weisberg, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Michael Walzer and more)

Trick Question: which of the preceding acts led dozens of self-proclaimed liberals to stand up in solidarity with the victims and profess their liberal principles with a robust manifesto?

Answer: 5

They certainly got their priorities straight. 

Reading further, one discovers more things of interests. For example, we learn that liberals supported the invasion of Afghanistan, which killed already a lot more civilians than the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers . This is raising disturbing questions, such as ‘what the hell were they thinking?’

The war in Afghanistan was not a radical change in U.S. policy in response to 9/11. It couldn’t be -- perish the thought -- that liberals are not aware of the history of decades long U.S. involvement in the area, all with the purpose of encircling and weakening The Soviet Union (and later Russia) and taking control over gas and oil resources. I dare not assume that scholars such as Bruce Ackerman would stand in support of a government policy without taking stock of the history of that policy, while claiming to ground their politics in “reason.”

The choice of possible conclusions is therefore rather unedifying:

* Liberals support U.S. imperial pursuits, even though they lead inexorably to the decline of civil liberties and are the primary reason for the lack of resources for exactly those priorities liberals supposedly care about. If that is the case, it raises doubt whether Ackerman and Co. actually care about what they claim to care about.

* Regardless of the administration’s actual goals in Afghanistan, liberals are pleased that the people and government of Afghanistan have been punished for providing material support to terrorists. In that case liberals, to be consistent as liberals, must also support terrorism against U.S. citizens, since the latter also provide material support for terrorism through their federal tax payments.

* Liberals believed that even though the U.S. has a long history of running imperial wars with complete disregard to the life and interests of the indigenous population, the sudden materialization of a just cause would miraculously lead the current White House to conduct only this one war justly, without abusing its power and without using it as a pretext for grabbing resources and advancing imperial interests. If that is what liberals believed, it raises doubts about their sanity.

* Liberals feel compelled to seek political credibility within the parameters imposed by the prevailing imperial culture by supporting at least some imperial wars, principles be damned.

But then the declaration of principles becomes nauseating. Even though the U.S., between 1979 and 2006, is responsible directly for at least 1.5 million deaths in the region, and indirectly implicated in another 3 million more deaths, Ackerman and Gitlin believe that “horrific, unjustifiable violence” is a description that applies only to “jihadis.” The violence of the U.S., on the other hand, is merely “illegal” and “unwise.” There is apparently nothing horrific or unjustifiable in strafing villages, demolishing cities, bombing hospitals, destroying the water supply and killing and starving millions. [10] To be sure, the war in Iraq , according to Ackerman, is “destructive,” but not of Iraq and the lives of Iraqis, as a naïve observer might assume. It is destructive of “ America ’s moral standing.”

Do people so in love with themselves have “a moral standing?”

And then there is this thrown in:

We believe that the state of Israel has the fundamental right to exist, free of military assault, within secure borders close to those of 1967. . .

What does this have to do with principles of liberalism? How did the future of one cannibalistic state in Southwest Asia become the touchstone of American intellectual life, the one issue that puts the whole literate establishment in turmoil?

Ackerman and Gitlin must be familiar with the text of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, surely a foundational liberal text, that declares unequivocally that states are mere instruments, and therefore have no fundamental right to exist.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . .

Not only Israel cannot have the sweeping right they grants it, but it should be clear that Israel does not even meet the requirements for the conditional right to exist that Jefferson grants functioning democracies.

First, nearly half of the population of the area under Israeli rule, not temporarily, but for four decades, do not consent to the government, enjoys no civil or indeed human rights, are denied all semblance of liberty and can pursue few of the human activities though which happiness is normally sought. This, it is worth repeating, is no extraordinary situation or event, but the very normalcy of life for Palestinians subjected to Israel's racist state.

Second, “ Israel right to exist” is a euphemism. Just as the so called “right to life” in the U.S. is a euphemism for the right of state officials to deny women control over their own body, “Israel’s right to exist” is a euphemism for the retroactive conferring of legitimacy on Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the right to continue to claim the property of the refugees and to continue to deny the fundamental human rights of the refugees to return home. Thus, far from being instrumental in securing rights, the state of Israel depends on the continuing denial of fundamental human rights.

Third, even in the purely hypothetical case in which Israel were to completely withdraw from the occupied territories (a prospect for which Israel shows no inclination), over 20% of its population would still be denied “equal treatment under the law -- regardless of accidents of birth, race, sex, property, religion, ethnic identification…” because Israeli law is discriminatory in its foundational principle, establishing the state explicitly as an instrument of Jewish privilege rather than equal rights for all citizens.

Note that Ackerman and Gitlin do not even demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 border, but to an undefined “secure border” close to it. They therefore subscribe to the absurd and racist notion that Israel can buy more security by dispossessing even more Palestinians. Rather than affirm and demand the bedrock liberal rights of those to whom the state denies rights, our topsy-turvy liberals chose to affirm the rights of the state to abuse, deny rights and discriminate against people based on ethnicity and religion. “Security” being the perennial fig leaf of the cannibalistic state, it is particularly ironic that Ackerman and his liberal cohort accuse Bush of indefinitely detaining Americans and denying them the right to confront the evidence against them. The diminished legal rights of those imprisoned by the Bush administration are similar to those normally accorded Palestinians in Israeli courts. When Bush is using “security” to claim powers that vacate the Bill of Rights, at least some American liberals can see through the rhetoric. Yet Israel has been claiming and exercising the same illiberal powers for decades to the cheers -- or at best to the faint discomfort -- of U.S. liberals.

On second thought, if the signatories of this pathetic declaration are liberals, I’d rather be a goat.

Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at: g.a.evildoer@gmail.com.

Other Articles by Gabriel Ash

* Chavez and the Devil: A Case of Mistaken Identity
* The Case for Israel, by Israel
* Is That a European Leftist or a Pig with Red Lipstick?
* Israel, Lebanon: Defense Against the Black Arts
* Israel’s Terrorism
* Another Brick in the (Apartheid) Wall
* Why the Boycott of Israel is Justified
* The Israel Lobby and Chomsky’s Reply
* Why Oppose the Israel Lobby? Comments on Mearsheimer and Walt
* News of Neoconservative Demise are Somewhat Premature
* Bravo Abbas! Bravo Hamas!
* Rev. Jackson -- Pissing on the Graves of Civil Rights Heroes
* Imagine All the People, Living Like Mindless Lambs
* Mourning in America
* Oh!-sama
* Diagnosing Benny Morris
When at a Loss, Escalate

* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions  


[1] Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin, "We Answer to the Name of Liberals," The American Prospect, 10.18.06.

[2] Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998.

Michael Dobbs, "U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup," Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2002. Stephen Shalom, "The U.S. and the Iran-Iraq War," ZMag.

Excerpts From Iraqi Document on Meeting with U.S. Envoy before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, published in The NY Times, Sept. 23, 1990.

David Cortright, "A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions," The Nation, Nov 15, 2001.

[3] “'We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans . We couldn't do it, but God did,' Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge , was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal last September.” “Ten months after the Katrina, at least 80 percent of public housing in New Orleans remains closed. Six of ten of the largest public housing developments in the city are shuttered, with the other four in various states of repair. Fewer than 1,000 of the 5,100 families who lived in the older housing developments before the storm have returned, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans.” Bill Sasser, "Locking Out New Orleans' Poor," Der Spiegel, June 12, 2006.

[4] L Roberts, R Lafta, R Garfield, J Khudhairi, G, "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey" The Lancet, 2004.

Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts, "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey," The Lancet online, Oct. 11, 2006.

One of many examples: “The authors of a peer-reviewed study . . . claim that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war. Yet a close look at the actual study . . . reveals that this number is so loose as to be meaningless. Fred Kaplan, Slate, Oct. 29, 2004.

To check this “close look,”  see Les Roberts explain the actual methodology.

See an overview at Wikipedia. 

[5] “According to an Israeli journalist, a check by Israeli army intelligence three weeks into the intifada revealed that "the IDF had shot, in the first few days of the Intifada, about 700,000 different shells and bullets in the West Bank and 300,000 more in Gaza . All together about a million shells and bullets. Someone in the Central Region Command later termed the project 'a bullet for every child.' Kathleen Christison,, "Excuse Me," Counterpunch Oct. 22, 2002.

[6] “Israeli soldiers, police and settlers who committed unlawful killings, ill-treatment and other attacks against Palestinians and their property commonly did so with impunity.” Amnesty Internaional 2006 Report.

[7] Miftah report.

[8] The list of sources alone can take a book, Derechos.org provides a list of reports up to 2001.  for more recent coverage , see B'Tselem

[9] Tony Judt, "Bush’s Useful Idiots," LRB, Sept. 21, 2006.

[10] For example, we have to conclude that Ackerman and Gitlin read Thomas J. Nagy’s "The Secret Behind the Sanctions," Commondreams.org, Oct. 29, 2006, and decided that the actions it describes are quite justifiable and not at all horrific.