Why John Feffer’s Careful Reasoning Still Looks like Propaganda
John Feffer is a seasoned Washington DC “thinktanker” at Institute for Policy Studies. He is not only a distinguished political commentator and author. Feffer writes regularly for Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), a publication of which he is co-director. Fair Observer is always pleased and honored to republish his articles.
I mention these facts concerning his background to remind readers that Fair Observer is a crowdsourced journal open to a great diversity of points of view. We feel it is important for readers to hear varied arguments concerning the issues of the day. We also believe that it is important to understand, wherever possible, the background and backstory of the voices who share their punditry with the world. In everyone’s writing, reasoning and rhetoric stand side by side and even hold hands. Understanding means coming to grips with both.
Most of Fair Observer’s authors, unlike Feffer, are not professional pundits or seasoned writers. We encourage unknown voices to contribute. These are people who have something valuable to share with the world in a space where seasoned journalists and pundits are also published. We invite our authors to enter the arena of public debate alongside heavyweights we regularly publish, such as Feffer, Medea Benjamin, Gary Grappo or Tom Engelhardt, to mention only a few.
At Fair Observer, we never presume to know who is right or wrong about any issue, a fact that doesn’t prevent the members of the editorial team from having their own viewpoints. And the naked, but also stimulating truth is that we in the team have our own very real, sometimes deep divergences. Disagreement can and should be productive. It is the foundation of the kind of dialogue that true democracy requires.
Alas, in times of geopolitical tension, the tolerance of diversity and the taste for constructive dialogue tend to wane. An opposite trend, strongly encouraged by governments themselves, pushes many people to suppress all divergences from official truth, often branding it disinformation. When the idea of some noble common cause, especially of a military nature, comes to the fore, the dominant forces in society seek to apply subtle, and sometimes less subtle pressure aiming at establishing and enforcing conformity of thought around what emerges.
9/11 defined the political culture of the 21st century
There are moments – think of the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York’s trade towers and the Pentagon – when all voices are expected to sing in unison. One false note, one example of dissonance, will bring instant opprobrium. When comedian Bill Maher blurted out only a few days later, “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building – say what you like about it, it’s not cowardly,” the sponsors of his TV show canceled their contracts. Maher was forced to apologize. Then there was the case of the avant-garde German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen who, six days after the event, called the events of 9/11 “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”
Stockhausen’s music had always been ultra-provocative, built of planned and random dissonance, but no one ever reacted with shock or disapproval to the most outlandish musical examples composed and performed by a man considered to be the leader in the field of electronic classical music. I attended a Stockhausen which in 1964 at UCLA’s Royce Hall where, exposed to the deliberately chaotic assemblage of jarring sounds, the audience sat in solemn, respectful silence. Everyone, that is, but the most respected professor of UCLA’s music department, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg’s, who was falling out of his seat roaring with delighted laughter. He was clearly the only one in the auditorium with a clue to what Stockhausen was doing. His behavior upset the man sitting behind him, who upbraided him for his lack of decorum, scolding him to be quiet.
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Stockhausen’s outrageously unharmonic musical creations could thus draw rapt admiration from an intellectual elite; his equally unharmonic verbal notes in 2001 turned him into a pariah. Yet in both cases, he developed a cutting irony that targeted conventional taste and conventional thinking. Six months earlier, in the same hall, I had sat listening in stunned silence to John Coltrane make musical history. John Kennedy had been assassinated the previous day. Coltrane’s challenge to the order took place on a different plane and its effects are still being felt. Deviating from the norm even at the cost of being misunderstood was possible then. That era was a moment in history when non-commercial music could still have a powerful impact on people’s lives.
The world in which musicians like Stockhausen and Coltrane could thrive — both considered masters of a music that pushed art too far for most people’s taste — has definitively disappeared. In 2001 Stockhausen learned a fundamental lesson about the character of the 21st century. Saying something deemed inappropriate can be fatal, at least in the US. Speech and thought must now be policed. That is even true for artists whose activity traditionally belonged to a world unconnected to political discourse and social norms.
Future historians may remember this first quarter of the 21st century as an age of extreme censorship applied to anything deemed sensitive or capable of “triggering” a negative emotion in the mind or heart of someone who happens to be present. Visible in the purely social culture of PC (politically correct), it has become a fixture of serious political discourse and a major factor in democratic elections. This is an ear in which noticing that Israel has created something that resembles apartheid system brands the observer as anti-Semitic. Using the wrong English pronoun to refer to a person is a crime against identity. Citing a word associated with racism, even in the context of historical analysis, constitutes proof that one is a racist. Pointing out that Russia may have felt threatened by the growing military power of NATO is a proof of complicity in the evil designs of the Satanic Vladimir Putin.
The triumph of conformity in the name of security
Today thought must be controlled and discussion restrained. In the purely political realm, our modern nation states have elaborated exquisitely complex methods and means of both provoking and especially enforcing conformity of thought and ensuring that no one, whatever they may privately believe, may be permitted publicly to deviate from the official assessment of what is good and what is to be condemned. Joe Biden himself has made that clear. Democracy — even when controlled by money rather than people — is good and autocracy, even when it reflects the will of the majority, is bad. Believing that opens the door to the rule of money, identifying it with democratic virtue. It’s a system that makes political decision-making easier, since decision-making can be essentially confided in a moneyed elite.
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But the ultimate effect of such conformist thinking imposed by a restricted elite is to divide society, possibly irreparably. The cultural examples of individuals choosing and imposing their pronouns and forbidden words, or designating as suspect expressions such as “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” foster ongoing cultural dramas that keep the two sides who revel in their binary opposition engaged in what each sees as a noble combat.
Bitter disagreement and binary opposition are now structuring elements of US culture. Every issue can and indeed must be reduced to two opposing positions. That deep-seated reflex explains why the US can never go beyond a two-party system. Even when the two parties agree in pragmatic terms on all the essentials — unbridled financialized capitalism, global military domination, the divine status of the dollar, gun ownership and the virtues of consumerism — they draw all their political energy from hating the other side.
But there are matters about which Americans are not free to disagree. The example of 9/11 showed there is at least one general idea everyone must uncritically embrace: the defense of the nation. In its most extreme form it has produced the popular slogan: “Love it or leave it.” It translates as the duty of ordinary Americans never to call into question America’s military cause of the moment. In a world beset by obvious dangers related in part to the increasingly destructive nature of technologies that may end up in the “wrong hands,” the insistence on conformity makes a lot of sense. Especially when one assumes that one’s own hands are always the “right hands.” So defense is such a fundamental priority that the decisions made in its name can never be criticized, just as ever-expanding defense budgets are never called into question by anyone other than marginal leftwing extremists and demented pacifists.
How did the “defense instinct” become so dominant in the culture? In former times, the notion of a nation’s foreign policy focused on trade and access to resources, in other words, the need to exchange with other regions and nations. Those exchanges could have a commercial or cultural nature. Power relationships were important but they weren’t defined in purely military terms.
World War II changed everything, partly because of its scale but also because of the invention and use of the atomic bomb. Today we accept the idea that foreign policy is less about the quality of international relations than it is about security in a purely physical sense. Defense is defined by weaponry to the detriment of social life and civilized behavior.
But there is another less obvious dimension of defense, the one George Orwell anticipated in his novel 1984: speech and thought control. No one can ignore the frequency with which, since 2001, policies focused on national security in the US have ended up challenging what people still refer to as “constitutional rights.” This sacrifice of traditional rights is always justified in the name of “national security.” No serious observer could doubt that the Patriot Act of October 2001, passed in the name of countering terrorism, has had, among its effects, the very real suppression of some of the rights Americans take for granted: notably the two pillars of the “Bill of Rights,” the first and fourth amendments (freedom of expression and freedom from unwarranted search).
The rights of a nation’s citizens are one thing. They will always be the object of internal debate. Foreign policy poses a problem of a different order. In recent decades, the idea of protecting “national security whatever the price” has led to the justification of the morally egregious concept of preventive war. This became the foundation of the Bush doctrine, used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The same logic lies behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It relies on the perception of a nation’s duty to respond militarily if necessary to an “existential threat.” We now know that the threat Iraq represented in 2002-3, with its dreaded “weapons of mass destruction,” was imaginary. Most analysts today agree that the threat to Russia by Ukraine’s dallying with NATO was exaggerated, but no one can credibly claim it was purely imaginary. However, making the claim that it could have been real is now treated as the equivalent of Stockhausen’s characterization of 9/11 as the “greatest work of art.”
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In purely rational terms, the very notion of preventive war should be considered the opposite of defense. It means going elsewhere — with guns blazing, drones buzzing and bombs dropping — to counter a supposed future threat. Tradition tells us that “prevention is better than cure” and “a stitch in time saves nine.” But if the supposedly preventive act produces a Humpty-Dumpty result, that can never be stitched back together again, the proverbial wisdom may prove far worse than any imaginable cure. Over the past 75 years, US foreign policy in Korea, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – to name only those obvious theaters of preventive war – has left a lot of gaps in the landscape that remained unstitched and often unstitchable to this day.
What is national defense?
Both of the terms — nation and defense — require some serious historical and philosophical reflection. The nation state is, after all, a modern creation. We assume today it is a fact of nature, but it is an artificial invention that historians trace back to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia. That type of political entity has clearly supplanted all earlier examples of social and political organization. So what is a nation? Are the people of any nation thoroughly happy with the result of historical processes through which their nation has been defined? Are they even clear about what, in the concept of nation, needs to be defended? Is it land, property, the people themselves, their laws, their culture, their shared (or imposed) ideology, their songs and their movies?
Although the idea of the nation is recent in human history, it will always benefit from a diversity of visible clues relating to geography, language, ethnicity, religion and political ideology. Defining defense turns out to be more problematic. In most people’s naïve perception, the literal connotation of the word defense expresses an attitude of protective concern. In reality, when policies of armament are in play, it embraces something that goes far beyond the genteel notion of conservation of property, institutions or even general welfare. In its military dimension, it includes a measure of active threat, bravado and aggressive display.
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In our age of powerful industrial organization and sophisticated technology, those who have a role in institutional decision-making have succeeded in pushing the notion of defense well beyond its traditional connotation. Originally formulated as the instinct of protection, in the nuclear age, it has evolved into embracing in the mindset of those focused on defense the most extreme form of intentional aggression. Who are the decision-makers our democracies have designated as their agents of defense? They happen to be a relatively small loosely defined group of politicians, industrialists, bankers and intellectuals, the producers of ideology. The latter group includes well-financed media, the advertising industry,a segment of academia and another modern creation: think tanks.
Perhaps without realizing it, our democracies, particularly in the West, have accepted a system in which this international elite that dominates all the visible institutions in a globalized economy can dictate, largely in private, the themes and even the positions deemed legitimate in public debate. It is precisely to counter that domination that Fair Observer seeks to open the dialogue to other voices. But it isn’t just by letting other voices become heard that we achieve our goal. It is also by using that opening of the public dialogue to stimulate critical thinking.
The marginalization of critical thinking
Many lucid observers have noticed that our civilization, so perfectly organized to produce a maximum of convenient material goods, has not only done little to maintain existing traditions of critical thinking, but has put in place the means to actively suppress it. Our increasingly “standardized” education has no time for critical thinking. We literally teach citizens to do little more than learn to repeat the messages they receive from both the official and unofficial channels that dominate all our media. Education has long adopted the model, which is now aided and abetted by technology, symbolized by standardized curricula and the dictatorship of the multiple choice question. The media and our governments play their role in creatively promoting triviality and restricting reflection on “serious issues.”
The emphasis on critical thinking is particularly important at this moment of history in which people’s thinking is alternatively guided by commercial institutional media on one side and the chaos of social media on the other. From the first — which extends from corporate news media to think tanks — we derive the notion of “authoritative voices” who can guide our thinking. From the second we allow ourselves to be guided by “influencers,” random voices in social media with the cheek and style to push their version of reality as compelling.
For that reason, here at Fair Observer, we believe it is every citizen’s duty to dig deeper. That means listening to different voices, developing an awareness of the impact of commercial interests and recognizing the intimidation factor that exists on the side of authority. It implies making the effort to become aware of the background and connections of those who claim to tell us how to think, whether they speak with the authority of their very real expertise or have simply acquired the skill set that turns them into a social media influencer.
Examining the discourse of an established pundit
As a political commentator with decades of experience and acknowledged authority, Feffer has become accustomed to the idea that his job is to analyze complex situations and recommend not only possible political solutions but also the specific actions that will enable those solutions. That is, after all, what think tanks are designed to do.
True to his vocation, the liberal Feffer — in a recent article with the title “Ukraine Now Holds a Strong Edge Over Russia” — has recently offered to enlighten our readers on US foreign policy regarding that war. His time-tested technique consists of presenting a series of apparently observations based on facts gleaned from his research and building them into a form of reasoning that points to what he considers to be the best course of action. He is clearly doing the job: think tanks think with a view to telling actors how to act.
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Some may think this is a fairly comfortable job, since a pundit can never be held directly accountable for the actions of those who act according to such recommendations, even when the actions go uncontrollably awry. That consideration alone explains why it’s important for readers to examine the methodology think tank and media pundits use. Unavoidably, like everyone else in their position, they tend to mix judgment calls and even gut instinct with simple facts. In this piece, for example, Feffer draws strong conclusions from very partial evidence. He assumes that because the facts he chooses to cite appear to point in a certain direction, his theory must be accepted as fact.
Feffer’s method in this article can help us understand how facts and apparently solid reasoning may not be enough to make a strong case. We should begin by acknowledging that all facts are not created equal. In the world of political discourse that depends on someone else’s reporting, there may even be good facts and bad facts. Good facts must be both incontrovertibly true, meaningful in their broader context and not excessively contaminated by interpretative ambiguity. They must also be pertinent to the argument. Readers should also realize that when describing situations of conflict, other potentially contradictory facts may exist that have an equal claim to truth. Those facts may or may not be pertinent to any particular argument.
If facts themselves may be problematic, reasoning – the procedure of moving from the facts to reach a reliable conclusion – is a traditional mare’s nest. The path is fraught with errors that begin when one attempts to establish the literal meaning of the terms mentioned as fact. It ends — messily in general — with the psychology of the reasoner. At least since the first day Socrates put the question of reasoning on spectacular public display while deambulating through the streets of Athens, philosophers have been having fun as well as experiencing deep anguish dealing with the question of how logic can ever produce an acceptable conclusion. To appreciate the degree of risk in following a pundit’s limpid reasoning, see Wittgenstein’s deflationism (“The common mistake is to assume that truth has a nature of the kind that philosophers might find out about and develop theories of.”)
Ukraine Now Holds a Strong Edge Over Russia
A closer reading of Feffer’s argument
Feffer’s reasoning begins to falter in the title of the article: “Ukraine Now Holds a Strong Edge Over Russia.” Apart from the fundamental semantic question of what having an edge means in the context of a war – wars are full of sharp edges as well as twists and turns – his claim in the subtitle that “Ukraine is successfully ejecting the invading army” is simply untrue. It is certainly the kind of observation a journalist in the New York Times or The Daily Beast may decide to write or communicate. Such “facts” are often due to an anonymous source in the intelligence community. But, whatever the source, this is clearly over the top. Ejecting means eliminating, cleansing, clearing out. The Russians appear to be conducting tactical retreats in some warzones, but no serious military expert sees them running for the borders. A wish is not a fact.
It is standard practice in contemporary journalism to use polls to prove a point. Feffer cites a poll released by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, whose findings, he tells us, reveal that “86% of Ukrainian respondents believe that it’s necessary to keep fighting despite the devastating air strikes.” Feffer doesn’t bother to mention that, according to those very pollsters, the “sample did not include residents of territories that were not temporarily controlled by the authorities of Ukraine until February 24” (whatever that double negative formulation means). More to the point, he fails to acknowledge or seems to wish to ignore a more fundamental historical fact that the US government and the media have consistently hidden from view: that Ukraine is a divided nation that has been experiencing a very real civil war for at least the past eight years, a civil war based on culture, language and historical identity. As Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies have done in a book we recently reviewed, the whole history of the past 30 years demonstrates that those unresolved internal tensions remain major factors that compromise the idea of Ukrainian identity. Why does that fact not interest Feffer, to the point of skewing the meaning of the statistics he cites?
There is of course a reason for Feffer’s sleight-of-hand. It is a documented fact that the continuous shelling by the Kyiv government of the Donbas over the past eight years in defiance of the terms of the Minsk II accord contributed to provoking the Russian aggression. But citing that fact would make it impossible to make the standard claim that the Russian invasion was “unprovoked.” It would also invalidate the necessary fiction that characterizes Ukrainians as a unified people seeking their independence.
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Later in the article, Feffer offers another poll result that appears to bolster his case when he claims that “three out of four Americans support the continuation of both economic and military aid to Ukraine.” That is true enough. But he neglects to cite another poll whose findings contradict his main argument, that “this is no time to call for a ceasefire.” That September poll, reported by Business Insider tells us that “nearly half of the respondents (47%) said they only support the continuation of US military aid to Ukraine if the US is involved in ongoing diplomacy to end the war.”. Furthermore, Business Insider’s report concludes with the observation that “Americans are growing tired of support for Ukraine without diplomacy as the war against Russia drags on.”
To make the point that even the most progressive Democrats align with Feffer’s position, he quotes at length a witness, Congressman Jamie Raskin. Feffer identifies him as “a prominent Congressional Progressive Caucus member.” But how representative of the left is Raskin? As investigative reporter Max Blumenthal has documented in detail — offering a video of an interview with the Congressman for proof — Raskin was not only a Russiagate zealot, but someone who blithely cites “facts” that he knows to be false. Certainly, Feffer could have found a more reliable witness.
Accepting and confronting contrary readings
Feffer is clearly in phase with the US State Department that has consistently opposed the very idea of peace talks. But he finds himself in contradiction with the Pentagon’s Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, who has pushed for negotiations, estimating that “the likelihood of Ukraine fully vanquishing Russia on the battlefield is ‘not high,’” Milley is President Joe Biden’s principal military adviser. Perhaps he remains unaware of the fact that the Ukrainians are “successfully ejecting” the Russians from their territory.
Former UN weapons inspector and Marine Corp intelligence officer Scott Ritter, a vocal critic of US foreign policy, states in vehement terms the opposite point of view. Few would argue with the fact that Ritter has remained closer to the facts than Feffer throughout the conflict. “Let’s be clear,” Ritter writes, “if you stand with Ukraine, you stand for the precipitous expansion of NATO, of outside powers fomenting illegal coups designed to overthrow the constitutional authority of a sovereign state, and the empowerment of white supremacist neo-Nazi ultra-nationalist movements who worship the memory of mass murderers whom they have elevated to the status of national heroes.”
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Ritter doesn’t hold back, pushing towards what may appear as the opposite extreme. It is possible to debate all these points, including obviously the relative clout of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine, whose presence and influence cannot be denied, though all commentators in the West, including Feffer, carefully avoid evoking them or when they do, dismiss them as marginal. That remains a legitimate debate. What is less legitimate is avoiding the debate altogether. Which is what commentators such as Feffer prefer to do. And why shouldn”t they? No one in the government or the media will stand up to encourage the debate.
My point is simple. As concerned citizens, we should listen to those, such as Feffer, who have experience and a track record of careful analysis of the topics they write about. But we shouldn’t accept at face value their conclusions simply on the grounds of their reputation or supposed authority. We should look elsewhere, examine the evidence and the case for its credibility. We should above all exercise that skill we call critical thinking.
Every citizen’s duty: to be informed and think critically
History has taken a dangerous turn. The issues we are talking about now may spin out of control with a real chance of provoking a nuclear holocaust. Bravado alone cannot produce lasting solutions. Democracies and indeed the human race can only hope to function correctly and prosper if we learn to critically examine the discourse of those who claim to speak with authority in the public square.
Fair Observer itself will continue to publish those who want to make their case, as Feffer has done and as I myself have done here. That is our vocation. The points of view and interpretations we publish often fail to coincide. In cases like this one, they may even be diametrically opposed. We need to hear them. We need to assemble more facts than those each of us choose for the convenience of argument. And each of us needs to be in a position not just to explore and compare, but also to dig deeper with all the resources at our disposal. Concerning Feffer’s article, I can only add this personal note: that I’m disappointed when a quality researcher and thinker believes, for whatever reason, it is more prudent to follow the drift of official propaganda, especially in times of war and global danger, than to examine the complexity of the issues he is addressing. Our platform at Fair Observer remains open to Feffer and others for dialogue and debate on these very issues as well as others raised by the articles we publish.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.