Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010)

Chalmers Johnson, best known for the Blowback trilogy, died recently. He was extremely insightful on foreign policy, especially as it related to American imperialism, which he saw as both unsustainable and incompatible with American democracy. He started as a conservative Cold Warrior, but over time, his views changed. The Wikipedia article linked above lists his books and links some interviews.

Democracy Now did a nice remembrance that ran some of his last interview on the show. The full interviews of his two DN appearances can be accessed through this page. DN also passes on a tribute to Chalmers Johnson by Tim Shorrock.

Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch has written about Chalmers Johnson here and here, and here's the archive of Johnson's ten posts for TomDispatch.

Finally, Steve Clemons has a lengthy, personal piece on Johnson. Here's an excerpt:

Johnson measured himself to some degree against the likes of Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal -- but in my mind, Johnson was the more serious, the most empirical, the most informed about the nooks and crannies of every political position as he had journeyed the length of the spectrum.

Chalmers Johnson served on my board when I worked at the Japan America Society of Southern California. He and I, along with Sheila Johnson -- along with Tom Engelhardt one of the world's great editors -- created the Japan Policy Research Institute. Johnson served on the Advisory Board of the Nixon Center when I served as the Center's founding executive director. We had a long, constructive, feisty relationship. He helped propel my career and thinking. In recent years, we were more distant -- mostly because I was not ready, as he was, to completely disown Washington.

Many of Johnson's followers and Chal himself think that American democracy is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix. He may be right -- but I took a course trying to use blogs, new media, and a DC based think tank called the New America Foundation to challenge conventional foreign policy trends in other ways. Ultimately, I think Chalmers was content with what I was doing but probably knew that in the end, I'd catch up with him in his profound frustration with what America was doing in the world.

Chalmers and Sheila Johnson saw me lead the battle against John Bolton's confirmation vote in the Senate as US Ambassador to the United Nations -- but given the scale of his ambitions to dislodge America's embrace of empire, Bolton was too small a target in his eyes. He was probably right.

Saying Chalmers Johnson is dead sounds like a lie. I can't fathom him being gone -- and with all of the amazing times I've had with him as well as the bouts of political debate and even yelling as we were pounding out JPRI materials on deadline, I just can't imagine that this blustery, irreverent, completely brilliant force won't be there to challenge Washington and academia.

Few intellectuals attain what might have been called many centuries ago the rank of "wizard" -- an almost other worldly force who defied society's and life's rules and commanded an enormous following of acolytes and enemies.

Wizards don't die -- and I hope that those who read this, who knew him, or go on reading his works in the decades ahead provoke, inspire, jab, rebuke, applaud, and condemn in the way he did.

In one of my fondest memories of Chalmers and Sheila Johnson at their home with their then Russian blue cats, MITI and MOF, named after the two engines of Japan's political economy -- Chal railed against the journal, Foreign Affairs, which he saw as a clap trap of statist conventionalism. He decided he had had enough of the journal and of the organization that published it, the Council on Foreign Relations. So, Chalmers called the CFR and told the young lady on the phone to cancel his membership.

The lady said, "Professor Johnson, I'm sorry sir. No one cancels their membership in the Council in Foreign Relations. Membership is for life. People are canceled when they die."

Chalmers Johnson, not missing a beat, said "Consider me dead."

I never will. He is and was the intellectual giant of our times. Chalmers Johnson centuries from now will be seen, I think, as the intellectual titan of this past era, surpassing Kissinger in the breadth of seminal works that define what America was and could have been.


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