Swans Commentary » swans.com December 14, 2009  



Perspectives: A Review of 2009


Failure Of Progressive Thought


by Michael Barker





"We tried getting money out of Google, but they gave us the boot. We aren't on the receiving end of six-figure grants from big foundations. George Soros doesn't have us on retainer. And we don't sell tickets on cruiseliners."
CounterPunch, Annual Fundraising Appeal, November 2007


(Swans - December 14, 2009)   At the end of last year in my Swans article "Noam Chomsky And The Power Of Letters" I criticised progressive intellectuals for deflecting attention from the anti-democratic function that liberal philanthropists fulfill in the service of imperialism. I concluded by noting that if "we are serious about collectively working to building workable alternatives to capitalism then we must learn to subject our most influential theorists to ruthless criticism." As I pointed out, a fundamental aspect of such endeavours required "critiquing the very organizations that have sustained (and constrained) much progressive activism, liberal foundations." Unfortunately, in the year 2009, bar a few noteworthy exceptions, progressive writers have failed to respond to this challenge. (1) On the contrary, many activist commentators have rallied to undermine support for a political agenda that raises legitimate debate about the multitude of problems associated with capitalist funding for progressive activism. This essay aims to shed much needed light on one notable example of such a failure, that is, the progressive defence and legitimization of a controversial organization known as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

It is not controversial to assert that ruling elites have a long history of manipulating social movements, a phenomenon that progressive historian Howard Zinn has amply illustrated in his vitally important work (see "Howard Zinn And The Co-option Of Social Change"). So it is unfortunate that radical intellectuals like Zinn and Noam Chomsky fail to extend similar analyses to studying the manipulation of contemporary movements for progressive social change. This shortcoming helps explain why they, along with many other activists, signed a controversial petition at the end of 2008 "in defense of Dr. Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution" -- an organization that over the years has received strong support from the elite democracy-manipulating community (including not least the National Endowment for Democracy). This defensive statement, circulated by Stephen Zunes, the chair of the related "humanitarian" group the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, was as one might expect signed by many progressive individuals who had previously worked with the Albert Einstein Institution. The existence of such historic connections enables us to understand why so many people jumped to support the Albert Einstein Institution, (2) but these links do not shed any light on their reasons for ignoring the problematic evidence that I and others had stacked up against the Institution. This failure to engage with valid criticism on a critically important issue means that the Institution in its December 2008 newsletter (pdf) noted that this petition along with a favourable article in the Wall Street Journal "succeeded in causing an almost complete cessation in the appearance and circulation of unfounded attacks and allegations about the Albert Einstein Institution and Gene Sharp." This is extremely problematic given that George Ciccariello-Maher concluded in April 2008 that Sharp's institution...

... has come to play a central role in a new generation of warfare, one which has incorporated the heroic examples of past nonviolent resistance into a strategy of obfuscation and misdirection that does the work of empire.

Given this criticism it is unfortunate that Al Giordano's critically important progressive media outlet, NarcoNews, and his Fund for Authentic Journalism, is currently working in partnership with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) -- a group whose work is closely related to that of the Albert Einstein Institution. The ICNC, like the Albert Einstein Institution, has relied upon the anti-imperialist credentials of some of their friends and their fallacious arguments to help shield it from much warranted critical enquiry. For instance, while the chair of the ICNC's advisory board, Stephen Zunes, defends the ICNC by writing that they have "never had a single operational meeting with anyone representing" the Albert Einstein Institution, noting that the "primary connection" between the two institutes "has been ICNC's support for foreign-language translations," this quite clearly is not the case. To take just one counter-example, former Albert Einstein Institution board member Peter Ackerman resigned from the Institution in 2002 to become the founding chair (and primary funder) of the ICNC. (The only other funder of the ICNC is Ackerman's wife, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, who is a board member of the imperialist George Soros-backed International Crisis Group.)

On August 7, 2009, Giordano reporting from Tegucigalpa (Honduras) reported how after watching the documentary Bringing Down a Dictator "more than one hundred rank and file participants in the Honduran civil resistance and some of its known leaders" spoke with Ivan Marovich, the Serbian resistance veteran and the former leader of Otpor "who had been invited by local and national anti-coup organizations to share his experiences." Here it is vital to observe that the executive producer of this lopsided documentary was Peter Ackerman, and that Marovich had been brought to Honduras by Nonviolence International, an organization that is funded by the notorious National Endowment for Democracy (NED). (3)

Sadly, when David Sketchley, a concerned reader of Giordano's article, left a comment highlighting Otpor's historical connection to the NED, Giordano accused Sketchley of promoting "counter-insurgency disinformation" and of being engaged in "crazy conspiracy theory talk." Giordano then refused to let Sketchley leave a response after his comment, consequently Sketchley was forced to post his well conceived reply on his own blog. In the face of much evidence -- most of which drew upon my own articles relating to this topic -- Giordano left much the same (non)response on Sketchley's blog, writing that what Sketchley was practicing with an "anal-retentive prosecutorial tone is counter-insurgency," and Giordano reiterated his false assertion that Sketchley thought the whole issue was a "dark conspiracy hatched in Washington."

Tom Hastings, a professor in the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University, was next to join the fray. With elegant simplicity and no evident comprehension of the historical activities of liberal democracy-manipulating elites, Hastings writes:

People in the streets who are trying to gain some freedom using nonviolence deserve support from any quarter willing to give it. ... If they [the U.S. government] do something right, like support Otpor with the functional equivalent of less than half a minute of what the US spends on the military, good on 'em. ... As someone who has spent ungodly amounts of time in the streets, in organizing meetings, in jails and in prisons over the decades, I say thank you to whomever helps the nonviolent civil society movements that topple dictators.

Next to weigh in on Sketchley's blog was ICNC adviser Cynthia Boaz, who worried how the "persistence of... conspiracies reflects some degree of naivete about how nonviolent struggle works." Moreover, Boaz adds that: "To question a movement's ownership of their struggle serves the interests of brutal repressors and risks undermining the morale of individuals participating in those movements." Strangely, even raising the question that nonviolent movements for change can be manipulated by powerful elites (and millions of dollars) is to play into the hands of such elites. To be clear, as Giordano inveighs, to engage in such related criticisms with the "likes of [Stephen] Gowans and Barker" is to sit on the "lonely limb of conspiracy ranting" and work to promote "counter-insurgency."

In a last ditch attempt to inject some critical thought into this "debate" Sketchley cites an e-mail he received from William I. Robinson (on August 15, 2009). Robinson, the author of the seminal critique of the democracy-manipulating establishment, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996), wrote:

That Ackerman is a part of the U.S. foreign policy elite and integral to the new modalities of intervention under the rubric of "democracy promotion," etc., is beyond question. There is nothing controversial about that and anyone who believes otherwise is clearly seriously misinformed or just ignorant. Marovic too is part of the intervention network; that has been well documented. The only thing I can imagine that could have thrown Giordano off his own political good sense is the notion that masses of people who become swept up in movements whose leaders may be agents of the intervention network are themselves "dupes" or agents of U.S./transnational intervention, which as we know is generally not the case and not a helpful approach (although it did not seem that this is what you were arguing). Rather, the financial and political networks set up by the interventionist apparatus attempt to penetrate, manage, and reorient mass movements, with varying degrees of success. I do not know what Ackerman and the ICNC have done in Honduras but surely the interventionist apparatus is pursuing, as it always does, a two-track strategy. One is to support the Honduran business and political elite and the other is to penetrate the mass popular/resistance movement (e.g., through meetings, financing, grooming some leaders and marginalizing others, trying to shape the movement's discourse, etc.), in order to keep it from radicalizing out of control into a genuinely revolutionary movement able to threaten the whole elite order.

This comment pretty much brought an end to this simple demonstration of the failure of progressive thought; yet in November new rhetorical fuel was added to the fire when George Salzman (a member of the NarcoNews collective) became aware of the problems associated with Giordano's acceptance of funding from the ICNC. Salzman wrote that the ICNC is "an organization founded and funded by Peter Ackerman, [a person] whose career is exactly contrary to what Al's entire NarcoNews effort seeks: total integrity of grassroots-based struggles." With reference to Ackerman, Salzman concluded: "I think NarcoNews ought to wash its hands of this ruling-class scum." Considering that Salzman is a "friend and colleague" of Giordano's, the latter's tone was far more sedate this time when he gently rebuked Salzman. Indeed, Giordano concluded his comment by writing: "So I'll ask you to reconsider your first thought on this and of course I welcome your views and your passion even when I may disagree with your conclusions."

However, as exemplified by the Sketchley to-and-fro, Giordano misunderstands the problems that come from his choosing to work with the ICNC, and like Hastings argues that accepting funding from the ruling-class is fine as long as they don't dictate how the money is spent. Giordano underscores his point in his note to Salzman by observing how:

The past Schools of Authentic Journalism were supported financially by The Drug Policy Alliance, whose largest financial backer is... George Soros... Did that in any way change our editorial coverage on any issue? Did it suddenly corrupt and compromise our fierce independence and aggressive journalism? Since you supported our work, too, during those years, I have to presume you concluded that no, it did not. So I really don't know what the difference is, now, between receiving support from an organization funded by Soros and receiving support from an organization funded by Ackerman.

Giordano evidently does not see the superb public relations function that NarcoNews provides for ruling elites when they accept funding from democracy-manipulating elites and their cohorts. Furthermore, the public relations service provided by NarcoNews is amplified by the fact that such monies are being used to support the training of exactly the types of radical investigative journalists who regularly expose the manipulative and co-optive nature of elite power politics. That said, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, to date no radical reporters (other than conservative ones) and only a few intellectuals have provided any form of sustained criticism of liberal philanthropic elites (like for example George Soros). Hopefully this will change in the near future, although I hold out little hope that such changes will be facilitated as a result of the work of Giordano and his School of Authentic Journalism.

My lack of faith in Giordano's ability to deal with valid criticism was partly confirmed when he declined to allow me to post a comment after Salzman's aforementioned critique of the ICNC. The note I tried to post was far from controversial and simply stated:

Having previously written a number of articles about the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, I thought that I should draw attention to this work and further rebuttals from the ICNC's associated supporters. See http://michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com/icnc/

Such censorship did not, however, prevent both Stephen Zunes and ICNC cofounder Jack DuVall from posting their own comments after Salzman's note. Moreover, when I subsequently e-mailed a small number of the journalists planning to attend the forthcoming ICNC-backed School of Authentic Journalism to draw their attention to my work on the ICNC the two responses I received were not encouraging. (4) The first respondent agreed that "I think it's important for the journalists and the left to be self-critical, to keep an eye on where groups get their funding." But having misunderstood my concerns, the journalist continued: "But Al Giordano, publisher of NarcoNews... answered [the funding concerns] to my satisfaction" in the aforementioned thread. Unfortunately the second respondent was even less reassuring and responded: "What has that got to do with me? I have been invited by NarcoNews and that is my only interest." By way of an answer I highlighted Ackerman's service on the board of directors of the elite think tank the Council on Foreign Relations -- pinpointing just one problem to demonstrate the controversial nature of the ICNC. The journalist apparently saw no problem with this connection, replying that the think tank was "a good organisation with international reputation." Moreover, like Giordano, this journalist could not follow the logic of such enquires and wrote how they were "really at a loss" with my line of reasoning; even asking if my questioning had anything to do with "religious fanaticism?" I said that it did not, and forwarded my detailed critique of the Council on Foreign Relations (E-mailed on November 26, 2009). The next day I received this blunt comment which was cc'd to Giordano: "I think Sir you have problems beyond my comprehension so I would rather not pursue this matter any further."

I left the exchange at that: but it was at this stage that Giordano chose to reply to the journalist by making false allegations about my research, beginning his diatribe like so...

I don't know this Michael Barker person either. He has written on the Internet for some time about his bizarre obsession with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. I find his writings incoherent, poorly documented, and filled with McCarthyist tactics of "guilt by association." He is not a writer or journalist of any consequence, reputation, or impact. His claims about ICNC's alleged actions in Latin America have been thoroughly debunked as filled with errors and knowing falsehoods. ... (E-mail cc'd to author, November 27, 2009) (5)

Concerned with this crude attempt to smear my reputation I e-mailed Giordano to find out which of my claims had "been thoroughly debunked as filled with errors and knowing falsehoods." I also asked "Are you concerned about the funding issues that I raised for consideration in my previous articles?" On this latter question he responded "No. I'm absolutely not concerned." (6) However considering the aggressive tone of Giordano's full e-mail I chose not to respond, especially given that he had not provided any evidence to support his false allegations about the quality of my work. (7)

Perhaps I am expecting too much from well-established progressive writers -- whose otherwise excellent work is not being questioned -- to start critiquing the widespread practice of liberal philanthropy, especially those activists who have maintained positive relations with liberal elites. Likewise, the same may also be true of writers and activists who have managed to avoid elite financiers, but whose progressive friends and colleagues have nonetheless benefited from the largesse of capitalist elites. It is understandable that few people would want to risk alienating themselves from their friends by levelling the same intensity of criticism against their peer group that they regularly extend to ruling elites (usually conservative elites). Yet this is exactly what needs to be done if progressive activists hope to untangle themselves from the co-optive social engineering of liberal elites. However, it is farfetched to expect the most respected and longest serving activists to immediately warm to this urgent task; and so instead younger activists must rise to the challenge. A paradigm shift is needed in progressive circles, and one can only hope that with enough intellectual and grassroots stimuli 2010 will mark the advent of a move towards increased grassroots funding, not elite funding, of radical social change.


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1.  For notable writers who have criticized liberal foundation in 2009, see Corporate Watch UK ("The art of funding"), Stephen Gowans (see articles listed under "Foundation left"), and Joan Roelofs ("The philanthropies and the economic crisis").  (back)

2.  The petition notes: "We are aware of, and are adamantly opposed to, efforts by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other U.S. government-funded efforts to advance U.S. strategic and economic objectives under the guise of 'democracy promotion.' We recognize, however, that Dr. Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution are not part of such an agenda." Ironically, of the 138 activists and scholars who signed the Zunes petition, three individuals have links to the NED. These are Mubarak Awad and Michael Beer of the NED-funded Nonviolence International, and Michael Nagler, who sits on the editorial board of Nonviolence International's International Journal of Nonviolence.

Petition signatories with direct connections (as advisers and consultants) to another important democracy-manipulating organization known as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict include Cynthia Boaz, Janet Cherry, Philippe Duhamel, Michael Nagler, Kurt Schock, Stellan Vinthagen, and Stephen Zunes. (ICNC advisors are not listed on their Web site, and despite repeated requests the Center has refused to reply to my requests for this information.) Zunes writes how the "only time ICNC ever sent someone to Venezuela was when they supported a trip by me and radical pacifist David Hartsough to the World Social Forum in 2006"; and so it is appropriate that Hartsough, the cofounder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, signed Zunes's petition. Likewise Zunes's wife, Nanlouise Wolfe, signed the petition: Wolfe happens to be the comptroller of the Resource Center for Nonviolence, an organization that was founded in 1976 by fellow petition signatory Scott Kennedy.

Other individuals who have risen to the defence of the Albert Einstein Institution (as signatories) include Jason Macleod and Anthony Kelly, who are both associated with the Australian-based Change Agency. Here it is interesting to note that Change Agency -- an organization with which I volunteered for in 2004 when it was known as Environmental Advocacy -- promoted my initial 2007 critique of the ICNC and the Albert Einstein Institution in their March 2007 newsletter. Macleod is presently completing his Ph.D. at the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (which is headed by ICNC consultant Kevin Clements), and both Macleod and Kelly contributed to the NED-funded New Tactics in Human Rights Project. Clements's research center hosted an ICNC workshop in Australia (March 17-19, 2006): participants at this workshop include petition signatories Jason McLeod, Kurt Schock, and Brian Martin. The latter Australian peace activist, Brian Martin, was recently critiqued by Stephen Gowans in his article "A wrecking ball of imperialism," and Gowans took the work of Metta Spencer (another petition signatory) to task in "Peaceniks for imperialism." Similarly Edward Herman and David Peterson have scrutinized the problematic statements made by Campaign for Peace and Democracy supporter and petition signatory, Stephen Shalom, in their article "Reply to the Campaign for Peace and Democracy."

Finally, petition signatory Barry Gan exemplifies the strong social connections that exist between the academic peace community and controversial groups like the ICNC and the Albert Einstein Institution. In 2005, Gan co-edited a book titled Nonviolence in Theory and Practice (Waveland Press, 2005). Four aforementioned theorists of nonviolence whose work is contained within this book are Gene Sharp, ICNC president Jack DuVall, Mubarak Awad, and Scott Kennedy. Along with Robbie Lieberman, Gan formerly served as the co-editor of the journal Peace and Change, although he has now been replaced by Cynthia Boaz. Peace and Change is published on behalf of the Peace History Society and the Peace and Justice Studies Association (a group whose board members include petition signatories Michael Nagler and Matt Meyer, and ICNC friend Tom Hastings), and the journal's editorial board members include Matt Meyer, ICNC consultant Kevin Clements, Mohammed Abu-Nimer (who formerly served on the reviewing board for the grant program of the Orwellian-named US Institute for Peace), and Lawrence Wittner (a former US Institute for Peace fellow).  (back)

3.  Recent NarcoNews and NarcoSphere articles examining the anti-democratic nature of the National Endowment for Democracy include: "Change and regime change" (March 1, 2009), "Honduras and a naked woman in Venezuela" (July 7, 2009), and "Millions of dollars in USAID funding still flowing to Honduras" (August 27, 2009).  (back)

4.  E-mail sent on November 25, 2009: Dear [journalist's name]

I was just writing to ask if you were aware that the School of Authentic Journalism has organized your forthcoming February visit to Mexico with the support of a controversial group known as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

I have penned a number of articles that have criticized the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and thought you may be interested in John Bellamy Foster's brief comments on this debate, see http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/foster170108.html

I am fully aware of the excellent work that is undertaken by Narco News, and so was disturbed to find out that they are working in collaboration with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. I would be very interested in any thoughts you may have on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Barker  (back)

5.  I have already addressed the false accusation that I employ McCarthyist tactics in my response to Stephen Zunes's similar charges, see Footnote 22 of my article "Co-opting Intellectual Aggressors: The 'Progressive' Face of the CIA" (Swans Commentary, November 17, 2008).  (back)

6.  Giordano's full answer to this question was: "No. I'm absolutely not concerned. What is the implication you seek to infer? That we would ever change (or have ever changed) anything about our School or about Narco News' reporting because of donations we receive? We haven't done that at any moment since Narco News began in April 2000. Additionally, no one at ICNC has ever asked us to change our reporting or our school in exchange for support. All gifts to The Fund for Authentic Journalism are unconditional. We wouldn't accept contributions from anyone that sought to change what we do. We were reporting on civil resistance movements long before we heard about ICNC and always will report on them with or without its support." (E-mail to author, November 27, 2009)  (back)

7.  When I received another insulting and threatening e-mail from Giordano (see below), I restated my previous question asking him if he could provide any evidence to support his aforementioned claims.

According to Giordano, I am "throw[ing] COINTELPRO type disinformation at" NarcoNews and the School for Authentic Journalism. (E-mail to Giordano's colleague that was cc'd to the author, December 1, 2009). Given Giordano's misplaced concern -- as I have only ever described NarcoNews' reporting as "excellent" -- he writes how he wants to give me "the full journalistic proctological exam of the kind we give to hostile sources and subjects in our investigations." He concludes: "Apparently this is one of those stalker types who thinks he can dish it out but can't withstand any scrutiny himself. He doesn't seem to realize that what goes around comes around, and we're, of course, superior investigators to him. I would like to know everything that is knowable about this guy and more. Obviously we will cover whatever costs are incurred getting his credit history and other information. Let me know what you dig up."  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 14, 2009