Chomsky, Afghanistan and more at Left Forum

NEW YORK CITY — The Left Forum 2010 hosted more than 250 panels covering labor, women’s rights, the environment, war, peace, and other issues during the three-day conference here in Manhattan (click here for related story).

At the “Why are We in Afghanistan?” panel, Mindy Gershon, a member of 1199 SEIU and U.S. Labor Against the War, talked about organizing health care workers against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Union members and leaders are generally are opposed to the war in Iraq, she said, although during election years, work in support of candidates has taken precedence over work for peace. She said that last year it was difficult to get people to speak out against the war in Afghanistan because of pressure not to criticize President Obama, and even now it is difficult to call for demonstrations against that war.

At the same panel, Chris Vongsawat, who had been a first lieutenant with the N.Y. National Guard but received an honorable discharge last December as a conscientious objector, spoke about his service as an advisor to the Afghan National Army. He was critical of the extent to which the U.S. military had been privatized by the use of civilian contractors to perform many of the duties formerly carried out only by members of the armed forces. War profiteers that provide these contractors made huge profits, he said. It is important the American public, he added, be aware that these profiteers have a major incentive to keep the war going and thus maintain their profit levels.

As for building the Afghan army, he spoke about how chaotic the training of its soldiers is, adding that incompetence and corruption prevent an Afghan army from defending their country for the foreseeable future.

At the panel, “Of Drones, Warlords, and the Taliban,” Derrick O’Keefe, co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance, spoke about how the American people do not understand that warlords, drug lords and fundamentalists dominate the Afghan government. He gave as an example Abdul Sayyaf, the warlord who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan and built Al-Qaeda training camps, who has been accused of many human rights abuses yet is still part of the government. O’Keefe said opium production has increased significantly since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001, and most of the profits from it go to the drug lords, many of whom are part of the government, not to the Taliban.

He also said that the influence of fundamentalists in the government has meant that women have no rights. He explained that the men who rape women or force them into prostitution typically go unpunished. As a result, the rate of female suicide is way up. Many women have set themselves on fire to protest these injustices.

At the closing plenary session, Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer and human rights activist, spoke briefly about the how the American-backed fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan combined with America’s support for neoliberal economic policies has created serious problems in India. The main topic she focused on were the struggles of India’s forest and tribal peoples, and the related radical left insurgency in those states of central India. She also called for the peace movement to engage in a struggle beyond “handing out stickers” against war.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist, educator, and political activist, gave the main closing plenary presentation based on the Forum’s theme “The Center Cannot Hold.” He started by telling the story of Joseph Stack, the man who flew his plane into an IRS office in Texas in February of this year. Chomsky used Stack’s life and experiences as his lead example of the declining fortunes of working people over the last 40 years, not only the working people of America but all over the world, while at the same time the wealth of the global elites increased dramatically. He spoke about the right-wing’s effective use of propaganda to persuade working people to act against their own interests.

Going back to the 1920s, he gave the Weimar Republic’s collapse in Germany and the take over by the Nazis in the 1930s as an example of what happens when the center cannot hold. Speaking of recent events, Chomsky cited the January election of Republican Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy as another sign of the center not holding.

In effect, Chomsky argued that with the center, for example, President Obama and the congressional Democrats, failing to come through with actions that would improve their lives, the people were drifting towards embracing the right-wing extremists.

Chomsky closed by mentioning what he believes could improve the people’s situation. He suggested that workers take over and run abandoned factories themselves to build high-speed rail systems, the green economy, and other necessities of the times. He said what is needed is that people sweep away the myths and illusions and become involved in popular struggles.

Photo: Noam Chomsky, left, an icon of the U.S. left, appears after an interview he conducted with President of Ecuador Rafael Correa in London. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0