Interview in Workers Liberty, 2018

February 4, 2018

Against the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" binary: an interview with Meredith Tax |

By Andy Heintz. Workers' Liberty  

Meredith Tax has been a prominent feminist voice and political activist since the late 1960s. She is the author of several books including The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, The Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, and A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, as well as two historical novels, Rivington Street and Union Square. Her 1969 essay “Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Everyday Life” helped influence the US women’s liberation movement.

In 1986, Tax and Grace Paley initiated the PEN American Center Women’s Committee and became its co-chairs. Tax later became the founding Chair of theInternational PEN’s Women Writers’ Committee. She was the founding president of Women’s World, a global free-speech network that fought gender-based censorship, and was more recently a co-founder of Centre for Secular Space in London. Tax has written on the Rojava revolution in Syria and the need for the Left to oppose the excesses of the “War on Terror” without sanitising the threat posed by Islamism.

This interview was conducted by Andy Heintz, a freelance writer based in the US Mid West who writes about US foreign policy, universal rights, gender equality, and social movements. He has been published in progressive outlets like Foreign Policy in Focus, The Wire, Common Dreams, CounterVortex, Muftah, Balkan Witness, Secularism is a Women's Issue, Europe-Solidaire, the New Internationalist, and Culture Project. He is compiling a book ofinterviews, entitled Dissidents of the International Left, that he hopes to have published by the end of 2018. This interview is republished with Andy’s permission.

Have Western human rights organisations made any reforms in the way they document the crimes of non-state actors compared to crimes committed by the State?

It’s a complicated question because in many cases it’s a lot harder to document the crimes of non-state actors than it is to document crimes committed by the State. There is rarely a public record of these crimes. The problems in the coverage of crimes committed by non-state actors lies with both Western human rights organisations and journalists. A human rights organisation must be able to document its accusations and the same is true with journalists. That means they can only work if people are willing to talk with them and if they can get into the place that they are supposed to report on. Otherwise, they are just relying on hearsay.

That has been the problem in a lot of the reporting on Syria. Human rights organisations and journalists can’t get into most of the places that they are writing about, so they are dependent on sources. Many of the human rights organisations and journalists are based in Istanbul where there is a huge concentration of Syrian refugees and organisations which claim to represent one force or another in Syria. Many of these groups are subsidised by the Turkish government, which has its own agenda in Syria. This is particularly true about the Syrian opposition groups living there. So if Turkey wants people to think the YPG/YPJ [People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units] Kurds in Rojava are committing various kinds of human rights abuses, particularly ethnic cleansing, there are a lot of people in Istanbul that are willing to say that.

Some of the human rights organisations have been content with taking their information from people in Istanbul rather than going to interview people in the YPG/YPJ; or they are interviewing people who are refugees from places that have been captured from ISIS by the YPG/YPJ. However, people who become refugees after a place has been captured by the YPG/YPJ are likely to have left not only because of the war, but also because they were worried that they would be tarred by their association with the Islamic State (ISIS).

Are journalists doing an adequate job of covering balanced reporting on human rights violations in places like Syria?

The problem of skewed human rights reporting is sometimes exacerbated by journalists. Roy Gutman [who has written articles for The Nation accusing the YPG of human rights abuses], for instance, has relied very much on sources available to him in Istanbul to make a case that the people in Rojava are committing various kinds of human rights violations and war crimes.

For those of us who are supporters of the Rojava revolution, how do you strike the balance between being supportive of the people there, while remaining objective to reports of alleged human rights violations happening in that area?

There are good reasons to defend the people of Rojava. First, they fought ISIS more effectively than anybody else on the ground. Second, they are trying to do interesting things politically, particularly in terms of women. To me, they are a great source of new ideas and a possible magnet for progressives in the region and the rest of world as well. They are providing a type of political experimentation that we very much need because we don’t have a lot of liberated areas in the world where this scale of political experimentation can be attempted.

We have to recognise Rojava is a work in progress: they are going to get some things wrong and we are going to disagree with them on certain points. I’m not interested in criticising how anyone does stuff  when they are in an existential fight for life against ISIS. You can voice criticisms, but the question is how can you do this in a way that is productive?

The Rojava self-administration has been very open about letting human rights groups into its areas for inspections and not sending them with minders like dictators do. However, it’s been very hard to get into these areas so it’s very hard to assess what’s going on except from the volunteers who go into these areas and then come out. I would say it’s probable that some human rights violations have been committed, but they are not systemic. They would be particular to a person or a small brigade in most cases. The cantons are new and the people who are fighting are peasants, many of whom are just beginning to be educated; and violations always happen during war.

When human rights violations are committed the self-administration tries to find the perpetrators and they put them on trial if they think they have done something wrong and this is all done in public. They have admitted to recruiting underage  fighters in the past, but they say this practice has stopped. They definitely practice conscription, but they also do not send people to the front lines who don’t volunteer. People who are conscripted are used as domestic police or border guards. As far as I can tell, they are trying to address human rights violations. This is what is being said by the people I know who have served with them.

The main accusation that has been levelled by the Turkish state and Syrian opposition groups against the YPG/YPJ is ethnic cleansing. This is the accusationthat was pushed by Amnesty International. There was a United Nation’s report that completely exonerated the Kurds of this charge. The report assesses all parties involved in the Syrian civil war. It accuses many of the groups of horrible abuses such as using chemical weapons, bombing civilians, starvation tactics, summary executions, etc. The worst thing it says about the YPG/YPJ is they have been accused of recruiting child soldiers (people under 18), detention under harsh conditions of a 17-year-old who was accused of working for the ISIS, and confiscation of computers and cell phones in areas that were liberated from ISIS. I suspect they confiscated computers and cell phones to gather intelligence from them, not for personal use. If that’s the worst that you could say about a party in this civil war, it’s not that bad.

Have the Trotskyists on the Left gained too much influence over US anti-war and peace groups?

I don’t keep up with all these groups, so I can’t really say. However, this idea that the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and that we have to support anybody who is critical of the US is very strong in the international Left and here in the United States. This view has been exposed by the Syrian civil war as a significant number of leftists are prepared to take the word of Russian television or journalists who have gone to Damascus and spoken at conferences held by the Syrian government as the truth. I think this all goes back to this idea that the United States is a uniquely evil and powerful force in the world and that freedom fighters must focus on the US government almost to the exclusion of everything else. Leftists who promote this idea will side with anyone who opposes the United States and I think this is totally crazy. I call it imperial narcissism and I think it shows an inability to grasp what period we are living in.

People are still fixated on a binary Cold War analysis where either the United States is all good and Russia is all bad or vice versa. Both views are wrong.

Russia is no longer a supporter of national liberation movements unless it is to their advantage. They play a very complex role internationally, but part of this role includes organising what could be called a fascist International of groups all over Europe to disrupt NATO. Internally, the Putin government has totally repressed civil society, democracy and a free press and given free rein to gangsters and crooks and well-connected looters of what used to be common property.

The people on the Left who think the US is all-powerful are just like the people on the Right who think the US is all-powerful and they are both wrong. We may have the most powerful military and have the most military bases in the world, but that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. We are constrained by all kinds of other actors who have other agendas. A 21st-century Left has to abandon this binary view and realise that we live in a more complex world with a lot of interlocking and seemingly contradictory things going on. There are no unique villains, and there is no simple formula you can apply to get a correct political analysis. It takes a lot of thinking and a lot of work.

How should the Left respond to these Far Right nationalist and religious movements around the world?

I don’t think they have responded very well at all. I don’t think they have a clue. The US Left, which is the part of the Left that I know most about, needs to understand what’s going on in the world. There is a tendency now to view everything through the prism of domestic policy, and to only talk about fighting back against Donald Trump over domestic issues. While I think the domestic stuff is central, it can’t be considered in isolation of global factors.

We live in a period of globalisation. We live in a period when essentially fascist or proto-fascist forces from Trump to right-wing forces in France and Germany and Holland and Russia are coming together and coalescing as an international movement as they did in the 1930s. I think that is what we’re seeing today. The people who are attracted to this movement in America certainly have their roots in white supremacy, but that is true in Europe and other places as well. Unless you can see the global component of this and how these groups are supporting each other, you are going to be up a tree.

What are your thoughts about right-wing groups’ claims that leftists are trying to suppress free speech on college campuses?

I think it’s important to oppose giving a platform to people who are really Nazis and fascists and Klan people. However, if a Harvard idiot sociologist writes bad things about black people, he should be answered by arguments, not by closing him down. The whole tendency to try to shut down discussion is very bad for the left. I think we need to distinguish between people who are just idiots or have a right-wing agenda, and people who are actually fascists who are advocating the murder of certain groups and hate crimes. I’m not a free-speech absolutist because I think we do have to identify people who are encouraging hate crimes and try to prevent their word from spreading. I’m talking about people who literally say, “go out and kill Muslims.”

Some commentators have said that identity politics has hurt the American Left. What are your thoughts on this topic?

I think it’s important to think about the politics of identity in a complex way. Everybody has multiple identities. That’s what intersectionality is all about. Forexample, I’m a Jew, I’m a leftist, I’m a feminist, I’m old. The problem isn’t that people bring their identities into politics, it is when they have no politics other than their personal identity. That subjective approach leaves out people and it fragments movements. This is the kind of stuff that goes on at college campuses according to some of the students I talk to. Identity politics can be very reductionist. For instance, the people who stress class politics often underestimate race; and in the US a lot of issues come down to race. And they also tend to leave out the oppression of women. I think such mechanical materialism has to be countered by a more holistic analysis that would attract people to a better way of doing politics.

Do you think that the commentators who claim Democrats have to choose between supporting marginalised groups and promoting a class based form of politics are offering a false choice?

Absolutely. You have to do both. You can’t frame the working class solely in terms of white people. The working class is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. It holds a lot of immigrants, including ones that are undocumented. If you want class politics, you have to look at all that. You also have to deal with the contradictions within the working class. For example, the conflicting positions on the environment between some of the skilled workers and construction workers who supported the Keystone Pipeline and everybody else who wants their children to be able to breathe and survive. I also don’t think we can leave climate change out of this topic. Climate change has to underline everything that we do. We need to build a vast coalition that insists the planet isn’t completely destroyed.

The Bernie Sanders campaign often used rhetoric that pitted the wealthy one percent against the rest of us. Do you think this was overly simplistic considering the contradictions within working-class politics?

I don’t think Bernie presented a really deep analysis, but I don’t think he had to. He was very effective at what he did. He galvanised a whole lot of people and he brought a lot of people into politics who had never been involved before, and for that I give him all the points in the world. He also re-introduced the word socialism to the American vocabulary after it had been banished for the past 20 or 30 years. He isn’t perfect, but he’s still doing a better job than most of them. When you put him next to most people in the Democratic Party, there is just no comparison. I’m not looking to him for intellectual leadership, I’m looking to him for agitational leadership. He’s reaching out and building a popular understanding that may be a little crude, but it’s much better than anything else being offered.