William Blum: the dissident and the style

Middle East
on 14 Comments

Who are the great wits of the Left? It has plenty of thinkers and scholars, but you have to go back in time to find the masters of rhetoric. Dwight Macdonald comes to mind. He gave worthy causes a touch of humour and flair that made reading about them fun as they were instructive. The work of human freedom did not have to be as dour as an NGO press release. But today the Right has better humourists. Websites like Takimag are better written and more spirited than Counterpunch.

William Blum is an exception to the mirthless rule. The historian is a one man campaign against the prejudice that serious matters should be set forth in a funereal tone. The man has style. He had better have because his subject matter is depressing. It is a tale of murder on an industrial scale, a catalogue of human rights abuses so vast and grisly that not H P Lovecraft’s powers of invention could work it up – the history of what is known in polite circles as US foreign policy.

Where he formed the notion of writing about dispiriting things in the high satirical manner is a mystery that will puzzle men of science for longer than questions of origins.

The light touch is all the more impressive when taken in conjunction with another quality of his body of work. It is rigorously footnoted. One scholarly paper after another chases one assertion after the next as a man about town chases pretty legs.

Books like Killing Hope and Rogue State are the informed citizen’s guide to what the cynics in power do in the name of spreading democracy. Blum should know because he worked in the US State Department. These chronicles of empire are what made his name, and what the student of international relations keeps to hand when fishing for those too little known facts and figures that Blum has a knack for unearthing. You think you know what the confidence men in power are up to, but then you read Blum and discover that your knowledge is a fragment of the whole. Facts and figures like these:

Since the end of World War 2, the United States has:

Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected.

Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.

Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.

Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.

Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.

Plus … although not easily quantified … (been) more involved in the practice of torture than any other country in the world … for over a century … not just performing the actual torture, but teaching it, providing the manuals, and furnishing the equipment.

What’s more, Blum documents each and every one of them. He is the encyclopedist of the peace movement, the research fiend burrowed deep inside appalling stacks of reports and documents too wearisome and too obscure for any but the most dogged scholar.

But one’s own favourite work of Blum’s is his under-noticed memoir, West-Bloc Dissident. The book’s uninspiring red and black cover picturing an antiwar rally feels like something you have seen too many times for interest that one suspects the publisher is conspiring to keep it out of the hands of the young and innocent: it is t­­he wildest thing ever to come out of a scholar. Sex, drugs, and FBI honey traps are just hints of the marvels between its covers.west-bloc_300_448

It’s what you might call an eventful life. One of his housemates turns out to be a notorious bomb-throwing terrorist. His circle of friends is infiltrated by the secret services. A relationship blooms with such fugitives from the law as CIA officer Philip Agee who exposed the villainies of the government. And, among other highwire acts that lie in wait for unwary readers expecting to flip through a stodgy biography of a State Department officer, his close associates are implicated in the abduction of Patty Hearst.

In between these hijinks, he personally orchestrates the outing of hundreds of CIA agents. He drops into two revolutions in Chile and Portugal. And he is almost killed for his pains. All told in riotous prose that convicts its author of hawking top flight comedy in the guise of dissident literature.

It is not mere autobiography. It is a work of art. A model of the genre. Blum is prejudiced against the cradle-to-grave format of the confessional. He says the problem with them is that people don’t know what to leave out.

The paradox of his saga is that for someone whose avowed mission is to “wound the US empire”, Blum started life as a submarine warfare expert at Norfolk’s Naval Base where sailors clicked their heels and stood to attention each time he flew in from Washington. The first published work of one of the nation’s premier antiwar writers was a manual on torpedoing Red subs.

It’s one of his many previous lives. But as jobs go, it was not as financially imprudent as the time he ran a one man abortion call centre in 1967 out of his home before the passage of Roe v. Wade, pro bono, fielding calls at all hours of the night from desperate women about where they might procure an illegal termination, whilst the physician to whom he passed them on made a tidy profit from doctor’s fees, and not the least bit minded to divide the spoils. From each according to his ability, to each according to his greed.

Blum’s admirers have not always been to his liking. What happens when your fan is Osama Bin Laden? Not a winning endorsement. Blum, a lifelong atheist not renowned for warm relations with the devout, was amused to find himself adored by Islamic theocrats.

Other well wishers have more to be said for them. Blum was accosted by the Hollywood director Oliver Stone with the idea of making a film together. Stone was enamoured of his work and said he would turn the stories into a motion picture. But differences between Stone and his producer undid the enterprise and it turned out that Hollywood, hotbed of liberalism and stomper-on of moral taboos, was not ready for searching criticism of the political and social order. I fought Hollywood, says the author, and “Hollywood won”.

What makes Blum endearing is his candour about his failures. It is what makes him funny also. Even when the end is defeat, it is, one thinks, a noble defeat. At 83, white haired and nursing the memory of forty years of political and moral struggle, his radical friends have retired from the scene to lead a quiet life, but he is still good for another fight.

His enemies do not forget him in a hurry. David Horowitz could still be found inveighing against him some decades after their paths crossed. One’s sympathies go to the editor of Front Page Magazine. Blum should pick on someone his own size.

Not all enemies are made equal. It could have turned out worse for Blum when a police officer caught him reading an anti-Soviet newspaper on a train carriage in 1970s East Berlin. The Stasi might have taken a closer interest in him than he might have liked were it not for the good fortune that the paper was in English and the cop’s knowledge of the language was not up to scratch. After a few heart stopping moments when it looked like Blum was not long for this world, the officer returned the publication none the wiser for its contents.

Though it was adventure that lured him to the State Department, he’s gotten around a bit since he was shown the door for attending Vietnam War protests. In the 70s he made West Berlin his home and got a front row seat of the Cold War, and his grownup son is part German. There is something recognisably American in Blum’s spirit, which calls up the shade of Mark Twain, that his command of German makes you wonder whether his New York Jewish humour survives translation in his adopted language. Then again, Clemens disported himself in Deutschland too.

Along the way in his globetrotting wanderings he’s lived and worked in Sweden, Denmark, and England. But always the pull of America was too strong. It’s not that he is not a patriot. Just an outlaw one.

And respectable outlaws are those with whom he’s most comfortable. He was made honorary member of the Association of National Security Alumni founded by Daniel Ellsberg, John Stockwell, and Philip Agee for whistleblowers from the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department.

Blum could have led a charmed existence if he pleased. His education, his profession, his ambition were all destined to launch him on a successful career in international diplomacy. Had he kept his head down, had he remained incurious about the world in which he was setting out as an enterprising diplomat, he would have carved out a role for himself in politics. And down the line he might have held a chair at a prestigious university instead of being blacklisted from college campuses as now.

Remarking on the cliche that if a man is not a socialist at twenty he has no heart, and if still a socialist by forty, no brains, Blum comments, “I did it backwards. I had my sober, law-abiding, patriotic, responsible-corporate-government-employee career first, till I was past the age of 30. Only after that did I lose my head. I’ve yet to find it.”

Dwight Macdonald said after the assassination of Gandhi that he cherished his memory because he was a “good man, by which I mean not only ‘good’ but also ‘man'”. It’s an interpretation that appeals to one more than his reputation for saintliness. Blum would make a poor saint, and thank God for it. He is too interesting a man, and too much the mutineer. Saints don’t punch cops anyway. To do strict justice to Blum, the officer of the law was clubbing antiwar protesters, but that’s a story for the memoir to tell.

About Theodore Sayeed

Theodore Sayeed is a contributor to Mondoweiss. He may be reached at: [email protected]

Other posts by .


Posted In:

14 Responses

  1. Talkback
    January 20, 2017, 4:33 pm

    This can’t be true. The leader of the free world said that the biggest threat to this planet is climate change.

    • Mooser
      January 20, 2017, 5:26 pm

      “The leader of the free world said that the biggest threat to this planet is climate change.”

      Those, my friend, were the good old days.

  2. Nevada Ned
    January 21, 2017, 12:54 am

    Bill Blum’s work is very valuable, because he documents the real US role in the world, as opposed to the humanitarian rhetoric.

    Some contributors to Mondoweiss seem to believe that US support for Israeli policy is an exception, an anomaly. If it were not for the power of the Israel Lobby, the US would not support Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

    Blum’s scholarship reveals that the US often supports dictatorships and military coups. So our Israeli policy is not an exception after all..

    Of course, the Israel Lobby is powerful, but the Lobby is not the only factor determining US policy.

    So there are two reasons for US backing for Israel, not one. Disentangling the relative importance of theses two factors is difficult.

  3. Stogumber
    January 21, 2017, 6:54 am

    “It could have turned out worse for Blum when a police officer caught him reading an anti-Soviet newspaper on a train carriage in 1970s East Berlin.”
    This anecdote is probably put in for to make Blum look more like a critic of communism. In fact these kind of anecdotes are typical stuff in the biographies of “fellow travellers”, after communism became uncool (I hadn’t looked at Blum as a possible “fellow traveller”, until I read this anecdote.)
    For the record, police officers didn’t control papers for to find dissidents or spies, but for the sake of securing the communist intellectual hegemony – i.e. preventing East German citizens from reading dissident stuff. And as the paper was in English the police officer could rightly infer that it would not be readable by the average East German citizen, so why bother?

  4. Gary Corseri
    January 21, 2017, 9:42 pm

    It’s a fine article, and William Blum definitely deserves the notice and the praise.

    I’ve known Bill Blum for about a dozen years: we’ve broken bread together, attended rallies together (for the best causes!); I posted my own interview with him at CounterPunch and other sites.

    I agree, Blum can be witty. Non-conventionalism comes naturally to him. It is a kind of Jewish humor, I guess–irony raised to a higher level. But, it’s world-experienced polished wit, humor and knowledge, too. As Sayeed notes in this article: it’s wit backed up with formidable research and scholarship. Blum’s notes are meticulous–as one would expect from a real historian and truth-seeker.

    Sayeed alludes to Mark Twain in this article. (I’m a fan of Mark Twain, too!) Something Twain wrote befits Blum: “No god and no religion can survive ridicule. No church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field and live.” (Notebook, 1888)

    Long live the Truth-seekers and Truth disseminators!

  5. gamal
    January 22, 2017, 2:44 pm

    I remember Bill when he used to be fun.

    “My crime was being politically incorrect. The Islamic State, you see, is composed of Muslims, and the United States and its Western allies have bombed many Muslim countries in the recent past killing thousands of Muslims and causing widespread horror. Therefore, whatever ISIS and its allies do is “revenge”, simple revenge, and should not be condemned by anyone calling himself a progressive; least of all should violence be carried out against these poor aggrieved jihadists.

    Moreover, inasmuch as ISIS is the offspring of religion, this adds to my political incorrectness: I’m attacking religion, God forgive me.

    Totally irrelevant to my critics is the fact that the religious teachings of ISIS embrace murderous jihad and the heavenly rewards for suicide bombings and martyrdom. This, they insist, is not the real Islam, a religion of peace and scholarly pursuits. Well, one can argue, Naziism was not the real Germany of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Brahms. Fortunately, that didn’t keep the world from destroying the Third Reich.

    We should also consider this: From the 1950s to the 1980s the United States carried out atrocities against Latin America, including numerous bombings, without the natives ever resorting to the repulsive uncivilized kind of retaliation as employed by ISIS. Latin American leftists took their revenge out on concrete representatives of the American empire: diplomatic, military and corporate targets, not markets, theatres, nightclubs, hospitals, restaurants or churches. The ISIS victims have included many Muslims, perhaps even some friends of the terrorists, for all they knew or cared.

    It doesn’t matter to my critics that in my writing I have regularly given clear recognition to the crimes against humanity carried out by the West against the Islamic world. I am still not allowed to criticize the armed forces of Islam, for all of the above stated reasons plus the claim that the United States “created” ISIS.

    Regarding this last argument: It’s certainly true that US foreign policy played an indispensable role in the rise of ISIS. Without Washington’s overthrow of secular governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and – now in process – Syria, there would today be no ISIS. It’s also true that many American weapons, intentionally and unintentionally, have wound up in the hands of terrorist groups. But the word “created” implies intention, that the United States wanted to purposely and consciously bring to life the Frankenstein monster that we know and love as ISIS.

    So, you wonder, how do we rid the world of the Islamic State? I’m afraid it may already be too late. The barn door is wide open and all the horses have escaped. It’s not easy for an old anti-imperialist like myself, but I support Western military and economic power to crush the unspeakable evil of ISIS. The West has actually made good progress with seriously hampering ISIS oil sales and financial transactions. As a result, it appears that ISIS may well be running out of money, with defections of unpaid soldiers increasing.

    The West should also forget about regime change in Syria and join forces with Russia against the terrorists.

    And my readers, and many like them, have to learn to stop turning the other cheek when someone yelling “Allahu Akbar” drives a machete into their skull.”

    https://williamblum.org/essays/read/political-correctness-demands-diversity-in-everything-but-thought

  6. Gary Corseri
    January 23, 2017, 12:10 pm

    Gamal is writing about an article Bill Blum posted 5 months ago. He and I actually spoke about it, after it was posted, and like many others–directly or indirectly–I expressed my concerns about the article to him. I think he has valid points to make about “political correctness”–how it clouds judgment and inhibits actions most conducive to establishing a saner, more equitable world. But, I do think those arguments about PC were blended into a pro-war-when-necessary piece… and thereby the valid points needed to be made about PC were vitiated. Perhaps Bill will revisit that piece when he is in good health.

    And, while we’re re-visiting (and we should!), perhaps gamal will reconsider his opening statement: “I remember Bill when he used to be fun.” I realize gamal is being ironic with that, but many readers will miss the fine points he wants to make by quoting Bill Blum at length. A little initial framing might have made for more incisive conclusions.

    • Mooser
      January 23, 2017, 2:27 pm

      “A little initial framing might have made for more incisive conclusions”

      Gee, it’s hard to get more incisive than Blum’s conclusion:

      “And my readers, and many like them, have to learn to stop turning the other cheek when someone yelling “Allahu Akbar” drives a machete into their skull.”

      • Sibiriak
        January 23, 2017, 8:44 pm

        Yes, so many on “the Left” have been “turning the other cheek” before the horrendous crimes of ISIS.

        Strange, though, Blum doesn’t actually quote a single example of these widespread ISIS apologetics so we could take a full measure of their insanity.

    • gamal
      January 23, 2017, 9:17 pm

      Gary i thought his words speak for themselves, let me quote at length that nice lady Kim Petersen and i take your “ironic” crack as a vain attempt to satirise my English gentleman incarnation you have mistaken contempt for “irony”

      i am sad to here he is unwell, Gary, the way of all flesh, i hope he recovers and will do both du’a and puja to that effect, i have no idea what good it does but why not eh, there may be virgins in it for me,

      ” but many readers will miss the fine points he wants to make by quoting Bill Blum at length. A little initial framing might have made for more incisive conclusions”

      don’t give me work and save your advice for others

      over to Kim,

      “Blum: “Moreover, inasmuch as ISIS is the offspring of religion, this adds to my political incorrectness: I’m attacking religion, God forgive me.”

      Comment: Again Blum provides no substantiation for what he writes. He seems to be fabricating an anonymous person’s argument to oppose. This epitomizes straw man argumentation.

      To be clear, as a free speech advocate — within certain bounds, such as public safety — people should be free to criticize, argue, comment, and opine on any topics, including religion.

      And, with all due respect, Blum is wrong. ISIS is not the offspring of religion; ISIS is the offspring of US and western violence.

      Blum continues: “Totally irrelevant to my critics is the fact that the religious teachings of ISIS embrace murderous jihad and the heavenly rewards for suicide bombings and martyrdom. This, they insist, is not the real Islam, a religion of peace and scholarly pursuits. Well, one can argue, Naziism was not the real Germany of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Brahms. Fortunately, that didn’t keep the world from destroying the Third Reich.”

      Comment: It is implied by Blum that the Qur’an teaches “murderous jihad and the heavenly rewards for suicide bombings and martyrdom,” but he cites nothing in the Qur’an to support his claim. By choosing what constitutes Islam, he casts himself in the role of an expert on Islam.

      And when he draws the analogy of Naziism not being “the real Germany of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Brahms,” well… it is hard to discern where he is going with the analogy. If one infers from his stance toward Islam, it would seem he implies that Naziism guides Teutons. It ignores the many, albeit a minority, of Germans who opposed Nazism (see The German Opposition by Michael Thomsett, 1977). Germans are not a monolith.

      Nonetheless, this represents a shift by Blum. Previously he wrote: “It’s the teachings of Islam that inspire the Islamic terrorists to carry out jihad and suicide bombings.” Now “Islam” is replaced by “ISIS.” Nevertheless, ISIS claims to be following the teachings of Islam.

      To be clear, first, I am not a critic of Blum, but I am critical of his disjointed depiction of Islam and Muslims as constituting a homogeneous entity. Second, it is not the religious teachings of Islam or ISIS that this writer focuses on. What is important is the different interpretations people derive from Islam and how people act out their faith to such words and their interpretation. I object to Blum’s lumping all Muslims in one boat of violent “jihadism.” Third, most of all I object to Blum’s shifting the focus of blame from the instigator of the violence to the violence of resistance. I asked previously, “However, in the absence of imperialist evil wreaked against them, would these people professing to be Muslims have been inspired/manipulated into violent reprisals?”

      Blum does not deign to answer. Instead he conjures straw men. It is far easier to debunk one’s own creations.”

      http://dissidentvoice.org/2016/08/blums-straw-men/

    • Sibiriak
      January 23, 2017, 10:10 pm

      William Blum: It’s also true that many American weapons, intentionally and unintentionally, have wound up in the hands of terrorist groups. But the word “created” implies intention, that the United States wanted to purposely and consciously bring to life the Frankenstein monster that we know and love as ISIS.

      https://williamblum.org/essays/read/political-correctness-demands-diversity-in-everything-but-thought
      ——————————-

      “Created” Isis? No, but intentionally, purposely and consciously see them armed and unleashed in the hopes of pressuring Assad– is there any doubt?

      “US watched ISIS rise in Syria and hoped to ‘manage’ it — Kerry on leaked tape “

      John Kerry: .“The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth. And that’s why Russia went in. Because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad.

      “And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”

      http://mondoweiss.net/2017/01/watched-manage-leaked/

      • Keith
        January 24, 2017, 12:21 pm

        SIBIRIAK- “Created” Isis? No….”

        Would you go along with organized and supported the creation of the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and recruited Osama bin Laden as their leader? That the Mujahideen begot Al Qaeda which begot ISIS? There is more, but not from memory. It think it is more fair to say that the US, in effect, created ISIS than to imply that ISIS naturally evolved without US assistance, even if acknowledging subsequent assistance. Furthermore, ISIS simply couldn’t exist in its present form without massive outside logistical support. Tanks and artillery aren’t much good without fuel and munitions. The imperial narrative is all BS, pure and simple. Islamic fundamentalism is significant ONLY because the empire (including Israel) supports and exploits it.

Leave a Reply