Tag Archives: france

The ends justify the means

Paris has remained the center of international attention after the coordinated terrorist attacks on November 13, in part because of the looming climate talks that have now begun. In light of recently stoked fears of panic and chaos, a large-scale and officially recognized protest was prevented from occurring. Many have questioned whether the shutting down of the primary demonstration – planned months in advance to be one of the largest mobilizations in the world on this issue – was an opportunity for the many heads of state meeting today, seized with the justification of anti-terrorism.

For all the fears of a creeping police state, unleashed by counter-terrorism but focused squarely on silencing political dissent, the marchers appear to have gotten most of their goals. Various commitments (yeah, considering how Kyoto went, you can roll your eyes at that) have already been agreed to by major international players. For those who wanted to physically protest and fight the French state, opportunities for that have been available too, although probably not ones they wanted.

(From here.)

One detail curiously lost in the paranoia about a steadily expanding French surveillance system that can easily curtail civil liberties (which isn’t really unfounded), is the US’s own strangely undemocratic stance. President Obama has embraced a legal framework designed to allow him, or any future president, to move the US towards its emissions commitments without congressional approval. If you remember the reaction to his executive actions on immigration, you can already see how that could potentially play out.

There is an unfortunate way that this does reflect negatively on him. Instead of deciding that it was possible to win a majority in the Senate that supported collective action on this issue, his administration has opted for a strategy that’s essentially undemocratic. Admittedly, this is in some sense to be expected – the losses of the Democrats in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014  made any other tactic untenable, especially given the memory of how the Kyoto Protocols went over in the US Senate last time around.

The US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To those familiar with the millenia-old ancient Greek understanding of tyranny, this situation might be eerily familiar. Representative structures hijacked by powerful and enfranchised groups can be opposed by populist pressure, in the form of what ultimately amounts to a dictator’s answer to their illusion of democracy.

This is one of the ways that representative governments have historically fallen – when achieving something that resembles a democratic, populist outcome requires jettisoning or even dismantling the established, at least nominally democratic process. For modern Western states, this is perhaps best understood in the phantom of Napoléon, the quintessential revolutionary turned emperor.

Amid the fears that even a zealous commitment of the current goals would only modestly curb climate change, the haunting warnings of The Hunger Games universe seem apt. In those book series, set in a distant future in North America, President remains the title of the head of state, but is unambiguously a dictatorial position. The cultures and economies in that dystopia reflect among other things the damage wrought by climate change, which is implied to have helped dictatorial figures retain control, enforcing among other things, restrictions aimed at having positive environmental effects.

Before anyone reading this thinks I’m falling into a kind of pop culture rebuke of doing anything about climate change, let me assure you I’m not. The true horror here isn’t that President Obama is the next Napoléon. His elaborate work-around for dealing with the Senate isn’t to amass power within his own political office and deal with climate change or any other problems himself. Instead, his effort is to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-government organizations, which can circumvent the political requirements of a treaty.

This is less dictatorship and more privatization. We’re not a modern democracy, at risk of the revolution becoming an empire. We’re a post-modern democracy, in danger of cutting the state into private structures beyond democratic check.

Perhaps, France’s police, pushing protesters to the ground and throwing tear gas canisters, are less of a sign of things to come and more of a historical holdover. Instead of populist politics finding their expression in hands of just one person – and hence corroding democratic processes – or a lumbering or even misguided “democratic” government, we’ve entered a new era in which the state actually cedes power. For all their deep flaws, either of those options at least have some basis in popular consensus. The libertarian future being hinted at here has little to no democratic oversight.

The iconic images of undemocratic rule – of an all powerful state – might only just be that, icons, infused with political meaning only within a specific cultural context. We’re in a brave new world, in which the power of the few doesn’t necessarily control or even want to control the state.

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Turkey on Turkey-Day

Trigger warning: ethnic cleansing, genocide, linguistic imperialism

Earlier this week, almost everyone who watches the news had at least a little bit of a mild panic. A Russian military plane was shot down by Turkish forces after it veered slightly into their territory from the Syrian side of the border. While most outlets have offered soothing explanations of the situation – noting that Turkey’s NATO membership and Russia’s formidable military checked each other and prevent a misunderstanding from escalating into full fledged conflict – I think this speaks to the rather worrisome politics that have taken grip of Turkey.

Al Jazeera’s article on the recent incident gives a descriptive overview of what just happened and also provides a map that underscores just how deep into Syrian territory this Turkish province actually extends:

hatay plane incident

A piece by Gary Brecher from October paints a vivid picture of how such a comparatively Turkish population came to be lodged in the middle of the more diverse Syria. In a nutshell – ethnic cleansing on a mass scale. To any student of Turkish history that’s not surprising. Before the World War II seizure of this southern province, there was the Armenian Genocide during the first World War, and before that the long history of expelling Greeks, and before that the very genesis of the Turkish state with the help of Janissaries.

The Turks began their history in modern Turkey as a tiny ethnic group lost in the chaotic medieval east Mediterranean and emerged as the powerful heads of an Ottoman Empire not by accident, but from a consistent policy of conversion, Turkification, and ethnic cleansing. What is today Turkey’s Hatay Province began as the Sanjuk of Alexandretta – a part of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, with a significant Turkish minority that remained from the administrators of the recently fallen Ottoman Empire. That type of historical trajectory is common to most Turkish territory.

What reads to most of the rest of the world as a terrifying overreaction takes on another layer of meaning with the knowledge of that province’s history. The first priority of almost every settler state is the defense of its newly acquired territory, and Hatay is no different. While Arabic as a spoken language and Arab as an ethnic identity have both declined in popularity there at a staggering rate, a large portion of that province’s population continues to recall their family origins and to remember a kind of otherness within Turkey. That’s a vulnerability for the Turkish state, particularly with the on-going internecine conflicts raging on the other side of Hatay’s extensive border.

I have said before that the movements in Turkey seeking to strengthen their democracy aren’t incompatible with the push within the country to redefine their ethnic and religious identities in a confusing and globalizing world. That’s difficult, but it’s possible.

Bathed in a defense of the historical violence that served to create Turkey, however, a different fusion of older ideas of Turkish identity with modern senses of self might emerge from the Turkish state. That was what was hinted at by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year, when he created a photo-op with the traditional military uniforms of the sixteen former incarnations of the Turkish empire (of varying actual ethnic composition).

erdogan sixteen turkish empires

There are other identities to be pulled out of Turkish national memory, including martial ones. Ceremonially and militarily, Erdoğan appears to have cast in his lot with that understanding of where he’s come from and what his country has to do to survive. For foreign powers intervening in Syria and various local contingents skirting the Turkish-Syrian border, that’s another risk to consider in the already difficult fight.

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The rightwing reacts: more war, more detentions

Trigger warning: islamophobia, racism, colonialism, indefinite detention

It’s been sadly quite obvious for a while but conservative circles in much of the Western world are quite trigger-happy when it comes to Muslims. Genocidal levels of mass killings have been quite openly and regularly discussed for years now, fueled by a sentiment that what’s being expressed is a call for a righteous strike back. The recent attacks in Paris have been a perfect tinder for those ideas to erupt even more blatantly into public view. From France to the US, almost every major name in those politics has come forward with calls to use extensive force fairly indiscriminately against Muslims.

Perhaps the most subtle version of this was trotted about by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio who released this video after the attacks-

The thrust of Rubio’s point is a rehashing of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. A deeply historied and deeply troubling framework, Huntington’s ideas have cropped up in various forms in neo-conservative circles for years. The Project for a New American Century, whose name his campaign slogan appears to knowingly reference, were among the architects of the Iraq War and otherwise entangled in the last Bush Administration’s foreign policy. These are the champions of policies that have led to thousands of deaths in Muslim-majority countries over the past couple of decades.

That comes with a familiar plot. The story goes that a perceptively monolithic culturally Christian West (excised of African, Latin American, and Asian Christian groups for never adequately explained reasons) will existentially come into conflict with a supposedly monolithic Islam-dominated North Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia.

Among the problems with this claim is that its a much newer explanation than it wants to admit. Even into the early Bush years, the civilization-level conflict was framed in a more Cold War reminiscent dichotomy between “West” and “East” – meaning Protestant and to some extent Catholic Europeans (and their settler colonies) and predominantly Orthodox and Muslim parts of Europe and the Middle East (namely the former USSR and former Yugoslavia). This isn’t a political description, but a narrative, updated to reflect shifting definitions of a cultural other, who is described as irreconcilable until the story gets updated.

Other conservative voices were even less veiled in the violence-encouraging politics they spouted. Fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz called for restricting asylum for Syrian refugees to Christians. That sentiment was echoed by many other candidates as well as media magnate Rupert Murdoch who specified that those allowed in should be “proven Christians“.

Republican governors led the way on that issue, declaring that their states would not accept any Syrian or Iraqi refugees. Their statements are functionally toothless, since it’s the federal government that makes meaningful decisions about accepting asylum seekers. That said, like in the debate on closing Guantanamo, those statements can effectively stall attempts to release detained or trapped people, whether in Cuba or European port areas.


Not only were many calling for security and stability to reserved privileges for non-Muslim refugees with fears of their broader dispersal, but many dredged up the anti-mosque politics of 2010. Donald Trump predictably led the charge with a statement that he would consider closing mosques – as if that’s not interference with religious freedom.

The European right wing went even further. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy arguing in favor of a massive sweep of thousands of predominantly Muslim people into detention camps. Throughout Germany and France, far right parties have combined the existing anti-immigrant animus with the high tensions post-attacks. There are very real calls for, essentially, European countries to ethnically and religiously cleanse themselves, by violence if necessary.

In short, all of the worst things expected to be said have been said. It’s common for people to say that anti-Muslim sentiments are an exaggerated boogeyman within leftist circles. Sadly, one of the outcomes of what happened in Paris is a quiet confirmation that half of our political landscape is just as inclined towards war, deprivation, and detentions as you might worry.


The featured image is Domnic McGill’s The Clash of Civilizations, from here.


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On Paris: setting the record straight

Trigger warning: terrorism, racism, islamophobia

On Friday, Paris was rocked by a series of coordinated attacks. In the wake of a blast just outside of a France-Germany soccer game, which sitting French President François Holland was attending, it became clear that this was mass terrorism but also something else. It was a deliberate attack on the French state and its officials in addition the type of general violence that’s unfortunately become familiar even to first world populations in this post-9/11 world. We have been here before. We will, I fear, be here again.

With familiar tragedies come familiar narratives. Here are five stories printed at some point over the past couple days which I think do the important work of moving past the well-trod paths that have already led to France’s greater role in Syria and hate crimes throughout the Western world.

Whose lives matter?

As the New York Times noted, the global response to what happened in Paris on Friday was intense and far-reaching-

Monuments around the world lit up in the colors of the French flag; presidential speeches touted the need to defend “shared values;” Facebook offered users a one-click option to overlay their profile pictures with the French tricolor, a service not offered for the Lebanese flag. On Friday the social media giant even activated Safety Check, a feature usually reserved for natural disasters that lets people alert loved ones that they are unhurt

Every part of that contrasted with the response to a similarly coordinated attack in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. The asymmetry was just so horrifyingly consistent, from the details like the failure to active Safety Check for Beirut residents to the systemic devaluing of Arab life they quoted one Lebanese blogger on:

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

The implication, numerous Lebanese commentators complained, was that Arab lives mattered less. Either that, or that their country — relatively calm despite the war next door — was perceived as a place where carnage is the norm, an undifferentiated corner of a basket-case region.

This is unfortunately how the social imagination seemingly will remember the dead in Paris – as less expected to be killed and in a way more dearly felt losses from a war that could have (perhaps it thinks “should have”) stayed distant. That honors Parisians because Beirutis are perceived as so much more expendable. That’s not a compliment to either really.

What of the refugees?

Almost immediately on Friday, at least within the Western media I read and watched, the possibility of refugee involvement in the attack was considered. Numerous voices have stepped forward to dismantle that flawed and reflexive judgement of people fleeing the very group that has now claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris. Suzanne Harrington’s column in the Irish Examiner deflated it with what I consider admirable gusto with particular attention paid to the words of one refugee himself:

Here is what [Akram] has to say about the terrorism in Paris: “Horrible ..The refugees in Calais are completely against this because we already had this bad experience in our home country. THIS IS WHY WE ARE HERE. We need peace and we really feel for the victims, and we are with them.”

Akram is currently living in horrendous conditions in the Calais refugee camp, less than two hundred miles from Paris. […] What is not being reported is how the Calais refugees held a vigil in empathy for their Paris counterparts attacked by “Islamic” State. The Calais camp – and the Greek Islands, and Lampadusa, and all the other frontline EU borders where the desperate boatloads are landing – is full of people whose innocent ordinary lives have been destroyed by terrorism, both state-sponsored and freelance.

The idea that refugees fleeing extremist violence and related problems in Syria and Iraq (and other areas) are somehow an opposite to the Parisians who experienced the attacks (who are assumed to be predominantly White and French),  is to categorize them by race far before thinking about their experiences with Daesh. That is, by some definitions, racist, or at the very least some sort of xenophobic nationalism. That’s precisely what Suzanne describes ultimately, saying,

[L]et us stop being massive xenophobic ostriches, and move from Porte Ouverte to Frontieres Ouvertes, and offer proper refuge and sanctuary to those who have experienced the Paris bombings and shootings a thousand times over in their home cities.

Much of Europe closed itself in fear of and disgust towards the refugees. Now that they have seen more directly and personally what they have fled, can they perhaps be moved to a different course of action?

Who is Paris?

You may have caught a hint of this in the past section, but one in depth article by the Wall Street Journal made clear a particularly narrative-destabilizing point. The explosion outside of the soccer stadium, which was intended for the French President and to create public panic, was one of the attackers detonating their bomb while being confronted by security.

We know this because of the video footage and testimony released by a security guard in another part of the stadium – who asked only to be identified by his first name, Zouheir. In case you missed it, that’s not an ethnically French name.

As I noted before the presumption that the French targets – in the stadium, at the concert hall, in the bombed McDonald’s – were not only predominantly White but were overwhelmingly ethnically French is just that, an assumption that reinforces the way we think about their status among the dead or the survivors without necessarily any meaning to it.

The Paris that survived the coordinated bombings is typical of many modern urban environments in that it is rich in ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. Like many such cities in Westerner former(ish) colonial powers, a large part of the diversity has come about in the form of people immigrating from former colonies or other places of exploitation.

The very ethnic identities held collectively responsible by some for these attacks were among those who were targeted. To deny that, is to deny the realities of the world we live in.

What next?

As I mentioned above, the immediate response to this from France was militant. Air strikes began on Raqqa, the purported capital of the neo-caliphate, within hours. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an anti-Assad and anti-ISIS organization, posted some shocking claims on twitter about the strikes:

If these are to be believed (and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently is considered a reputable source by many), then French forces and others are responding to this with an emotionally untethered place. They are neglecting to check their activity to avoid unnecessary and civilian deaths, or even worse may be celebrating those and other effects of their violence. The only person who benefits from that, I would say, are the extremist factions within Syria.

Extremism, everywhere, and not a place of peace

Speaking of extremist groups, the violent blowback hasn’t just been French and hasn’t just been directed towards Syrian Muslims, but towards all sorts of the more than billion members of that faith. Among those affected are the Muslim residents of Ontario, Canada, where a mosque was targeted by an arsonist on Saturday. The place of worship had previously had several windows broken after the 9/11 attacks, so few doubts were had within the community about the motivation behind the bombing.

As mentioned in the Irish Examiner column above, a fire in a refugee camp in France was feared (mistakenly) to be a similar act of islamophobic violence. Instead, it’s thankfully noted that it was just the causes of the fire were “overcrowding, zero amenities, and zero health and safety” – all aspects of a situation well within the control of French and other European authorities.

The same dehumanizing logic that makes Beiruti deaths forgettable, Parisians of Arab or other Middle Eastern or North African backgrounds invisible, and Syrians in Raqqa expendable makes the quality of life for refugees in that and other camps unimportant. Now a sizable swathe of their camp has burned, leaving them with even less. Can a France drunk with bloodlust feel for them? Can it help them live somewhere safer and better?


The featured image for this article is of peace activists in Turkey’s capital in October whose protest was bombed, killing 95. More information here.

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Scary stories, just add campfire

If your day has been anything like mine today you are quickly grabbing together the most important things to bring with you to a Halloween party either tonight, tomorrow, or some other time in the next couple of days. Costumes, candy, and drinks are, of course, the expect items you have to gather together in preparation, but let’s not overlook one holiday-specific must-have: scary stories. Let me link you to a couple of spooky tales to wow people with this weekend.

Zombies… at the polls

The SF Weekly has a bleak portrayal of the emerging voter landscape in one of the country’s largest cities. Although apathy and disengagement have flourished in the midst of an anemic economic recovery and the widespread perception that there are few to no possible solutions to social and economic inequality within the democratic system, the problem appears to have been uniquely stoked within San Francisco.

The longer form piece goes into detail about potential contributing factors – including Democratic Party bungling, flawed election scheduling, and most deeply the ways that gentrification has recreated San Francisco’s communities. Beyond the myriad causes, the message is that democratic governance in many parts of the country is rapidly becoming something run on autopilot. Yikes!

Watching you

From France to the US, a number of countries are now considering even more extensive surveillance regimes that promise to make the system revealed by Edward Snowden look like child’s play.

Access Now released an assessment of the bill now facing consideration in the US Senate which called it “a surveillance bill dressed up as a cybersecurity bill.” Their look into the French bill, just passed by their senate, is even more grim, noting that it mandates “telecommunications companies to install ‘black boxes’ on their networks, which use an algorithm to indiscriminately sweep data for suspicious activity”. It’s worryingly unclear what will be counted as “suspicious” of course.

Not in either France or the US? No problem, these are policies that apply to any data picked up by anyone, citizen or not, in any part of the world.

The end of the world as we know it, and some feel fine

It’s come up on this blog before that climate change is likely to disproportionately damage some of the poorest communities and countries (who are also often least responsible for the crisis). The process of that is complex and combines together the fact that those groups typically have fewer resources to spend on either preparing for the new climate or directly address its impacts as they arise, as well as the happenstance that many of the poorest communities in the world are in climatic areas simply more likely to see dramatic changes.

One recent study from UC Berkeley, however, attempted to quantify exactly how the world’s national economies will be affected and found two startling results. According to it, the lost wealth for many of the world’s poorest regions – South Asia, Africa, and Latin America namely – will be much larger than many have anticipated. For a huge swathe of the world’s population, this means a reduced income and an inherently limited economy. What’s more, there are a few countries that might even see modest economic gains thanks to climate change. They’re concentrated in northern Europe, with a few other inclusions mostly from some other countries with comparatively healthy economies in current day. In short, not only are the pains felt by the world’s poor probably going to be much worse, there’s a number of people disproportionately responsible for global warming who actually stand to benefit from the changed climate.

With these stories you’ll be the toast of the party. That doomed, doomed party.

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An interesting comparison

TW: colonialism, military intervention in Mali

I have to admit, a lot of the time, I have to carefully consider whether I should keep following the Johannesburg Times on twitter, because of how much of what they write about and post there are interesting-but-not-very-important factoids like this. But often, their coverage for all its faults is the most detailed examination of what’s happening in South Africa specifically and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa generally that’s easily accessible and understandable to non-Africans like me. With a good amount of frequency, the Times will share a couple of articles that even if not particularly revolutionary themselves help put together an image of what’s happening in that part of the world.

(On the left, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore while raising funds in Brussels, Belgium, from various EU member states and EU international bodies, from here.)

Sometimes that’s pretty infuriating, however. Take, for instance, this article on South African economic development and this one on aid to the Malian state. In South Africa at the moment, disparate political groups with different perspectives on what state policies should be are in the process of negotiating at length how their society can improve its lot, which is quite the tall order after centuries of colonial occupation. It’s likely that few people in the United States will hear about these debates, and the few like you and me who have are unlikely to have much detail to them – but part of that is because of the internal nature of what South Africans are debating. I don’t know that the country can be declared decolonized (and I do know that I shouldn’t be the one to do that in any case), but it seems that they’re moving in a positive direction in terms of popular negotiation being central to creating economic policies.

The situation in Mali seems to stand in stark contrast to that. In the wake of what could be seen as another chapter in an on-going and multidimensional internal conflict, the power center that appealed to outside assistance is now working to receive aid from individuals and organizations largely affiliated with the military forces that intervened on its behalf. Perhaps France specifically should provide the territories under the governance of the state of Mali with restitution for colonial rule, but it’s important to note that that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now, is that the government of Mali has successfully pitched to the EU Humanitarian Aid Commission and other such bodies the idea that the intervention on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for aid.

Unlike South Africa, the government of Mali seems to have decided to farm out its economic insecurities, but at the cost of autonomy and arguably its democracy.

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How many dead

TW: islamophobia, mass killings, genocide

So, of course, in the wake of the Boston Bombings, this happened:

(Erik Rush responded to being asked if he was blaming Muslims for the Boston attacks by saying “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”)

I think after the decades of the US being at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and arguably secretly too in Yemen and Pakistan, people in this country have gotten accustomed to extreme displays of violence towards (presumed) Muslims. I don’t think the actual magnitude of this statement, which frequent Fox News guest Erik Rush walked back as “sarcasm”, has sunk in for many people.

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. That’s nearly a quarter of the entire world’s population. Killing every single one of them, as Rush cavalierly suggested (oh sorry, “joked”) would be equivalent to more than 200 times the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. That’s more than 145 times the total deaths in the Holocaust. That’s more than 66 times the military deaths in World War II. That’s almost 39 times the military deaths in both World Wars. That’s still about double the largest estimates for deaths under Mao Zedong’s governance in China (which were primarily from starvation, but also included several million political killings). To call the number of people Rush joked about killing staggering seems like an understatement.

The sort of mass killing Rush referenced seems to fit more effectively into eradications that history textbooks describe as occurring across continents and over centuries: the colonization of the Americas, the “settlement” of Australia, the exploitation of Africa. Even compared to those, Rush’s “sarcastic” remark falls short: indigenous peoples saw their lives destroyed on an unimaginable scale in each of those historical processes, but there were survivors. In a very real way, what Rush “joked” about was a level of murder unprecedented even in those cases, that would have lead to the depopulated path leading from the western coast of Africa into central Asia.

(Percentage of the population in a given country that’s Muslim. The darkest color, which is most prevalent in North Africa and the Middle East, represents that at least 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Click to enlarge.)

In spite of how much this remark, if translated into action, would be a new chapter in an already bloody history, it’s actually shocking how well it fits certain legal language: that of genocide. To the surprise of some, the legal definition of genocide is actually quite narrow, since it was written by the US (which had just used nuclear weapons against enemy civilian populations), the UK (which still had it’s empire, including the brutal local governments in south Asia and south Africa), France (which had brutally repressed its colonial subjects in Algeria and would do so again after the war), the USSR (who at that time was governed by Stalin), and China (what was in the midst of a massive civil war that would lead to Mao’s death-happy rule). The hands that conceived a legally actionable idea of what were and weren’t crimes against humanity were careful to make sure their past and future actions weren’t themselves quite within the boundaries of the definition.

In light of that it’s something of a shock how easily Rush’s comments fit into this deliberately narrow definition: the intent or act of killing in whole or in part an ethnic, religious, or racial group. Muslims are pretty clearly a religious group, which he quite clearly advocated killing of in whole. With so little wiggle room, the only defense he has that he didn’t advocate genocide is to claim “sarcasm” – and lo and behold he has.

While I don’t intend to suggest we should limit speech half as much as we do now, it seems like the US public and Fox News in particular could make clear that we aren’t on the same page as Erik Rush. So, I hope you’ll consider signing this petition which requests that Fox News cease hearing from him permanently.

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Everything starts to come unglued

TW: ethnic cleansing, indefinite detention, torture, islamist violence

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of the statements by Michael Sheehan, the US military official who explained that he’s concerned over the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and neighboring African countries aren’t “capable at all. What you saw there, it is a completely incapable force. That has to change.” You can practically see the rolling eyes that elicited as the Johannesburg Times summarized his explanation:

At the same time, [Sheehan] praised the French troops which ‘very rapidly’ pushed al Qaeda’s north African branch ‘back across the Niger river and took control of the major cities’ in northern Mali, he said. However, he added that much of the al Qaeda leadership had escaped. ‘They haven’t been killed or captured, but they (the French forces) have disrupted this very threatening sanctuary.’

Attributing the “successes” in Mali to the French seems like missing multiple forests for a single useless tree. As Sheehan makes it clear in the above quotes, he pictures the fight as being very geographically limited, which seems like deliberate stupidity considering that this is supposedly an intervention against an international islamist force that specialized in asymmetrical and guerrilla warfare. Beyond that particular nonsense, Sheehan seems very quick to declare the French forces superior, but there’s not a whole lot of semantic content to what they’re superior at. It’s been more than a month since the territorial advances he mentioned occurred – what have the French done since and beyond that?

The sad fact is that the French, Malian, and other purportedly anti-islamist forces in North Mali or Azawad have used different methods but frequently with similar methods: the deaths of seemingly innocent civilians of either Touareg, other Berber, or Arab background. I’ve covered a bit about that before, but in all honesty, what does the withdrawal of French troops do? Does it matter that the forces seeming to target especially Touareg civilians indiscriminately will be much more African than European? And trust me, there’s no indication of them stopping: the stories of torture, stories of murder by government forces, and other stories that make this seems like a developing bout of ethnic cleansing.

(Malian forces that have targeted Touareg civilians, from here.)

Many Touareg civilians seem to be caught between the threats of the Malian government’s forces and the assorted islamist rebel groups that threaten them as well, as much of the more in-depth reporting on civilians still living in the region show. Those are not conditions for long term peace, or even a simple conflict between islamists and the Malian government with Touareg nationalism rendered irrelevant.

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Tentative steps forward

There’s actually quite a few recent, optimistic stories I thought might be worth highlighting. In France, the Senate passed a legal expansion of marriage rights to include same-sex and same-gender couples. The bill hasn’t quite become law, but the last major chance for opposition has come and gone. I think it’s important not to view such acts in and of themselves as cause for celebration exactly, as they’re merely instances of basic human decency on a very specific issue being carried out. This is not the end of heterosexism or cissexism in any sense, but a good blow against the first especially (much like the British version of marriage equality, we’re apparently settling for depressingly little in terms of protecting the rights of transgender and genderqueer people, however).

(Green French Senator Esther Benbassa, whose car was vandalized, seemingly in connection with anti-marriage protests, from here. She voted for the new marriage laws.)

That said, I do think it is something worthy of praise that a majority of the French Senate voted for this given the climate of physical threats to them that surrounded it. They were given every excuse imaginable by bigots to cave, but a slim majority didn’t. More than the actual results, that tenacity is something to appreciate.

In other news, the Malaysian government has at long last announced the date of the coming national election (as well as organizational due-dates for candidates proceeding that). There’s an interesting situation developing with the currently governing political party, which has maintained power since independence, has started to offer specific economic reforms as part of a way of undercutting opposition reformers. Of course, the opposition has been promising even greater reforms and to examine racist inequalities within Malaysian society. This is the kind of democratic competition the world could do with more of.

Meanwhile, Colombia seems to be moving in the direction of not only a ceasefire but substantive negotiations between the leftist FARC rebels and the government. This is particularly important as the on-going conflict has fueled violence against indigenous peoples, most recently the Nasa. While unfortunate in that it has taken this much time and require so much public outcry, the end of the de facto civil war will hopefully benefit Colombian civilians. Likewise, weakened by the longstanding conflict, the resultant government might need to acquiesce to the demands of various indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. The future of Colombia is still uncertain, but there seems to be cause for optimism today.

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Who benefits from a Jewish Israel?

TW: antisemitism, the Holocaust

Why is the Israeli President meeting with various French imams to address the killing of several French Jews in 2012 by a Muslim? Why isn’t a French official who is Jewish or simply a French and goyim official who is concerned and wants to coordinate with various French Muslims and others leading the charge?

Israeli official with Israeli flag discussing antisemitism in France with French imams
(The meeting, from here.)

There’s a conversation to be had here, that tends to oscillate back and forth between whether Israel is over shadowing the various Jewish communities around the world or whether it’s benevolently offering them sanctuary and providing them a voice in international forums. I neither want to intrude on that discussion, nor am I equipped for it.

There’s another point to be made though: where are the French who are not proclaimed to be “cultural others” in that meeting? Does the framing of Israel being the Jewish state absolve them of responsibility? The crimes occurred in their jurisdiction – shouldn’t French officials be included as part of discussing how the enforcement of protections for Jews and all other people in France broke down? Is that not the same France that banned yarmulkes along with the hijab from public schools (under the guise of liberating the Jews from being publicly recognizable)?

This seems to tap into a deeper issue involved in the creation and maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state – does it absolve states of antisemitism that occurs within their borders provided they can distance themselves from the perpetrators? Much as the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust understandably wanted to relocate away from the horrors of the camps and killings, didn’t that action in some sense complete the ethnic cleansing of much of Europe? Does having a Jewish state create a body to deal with antisemitic events so that other states don’t need to even address the fact that Jews are being killed in their own countries?

This may be an unintended effect of the modern Israeli state, but it still seems to be one.

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This week in death…

TW: suicide, anti-Black violence, anti-LGBT* violence

There were quite a few deaths in the news this week which seem necessary to talk about. In Tibet, two monks immolated themselves in anticipation of the Chinese parliament reconvening, which was expected to vote for further strict security protocols in Tibet. One week earlier, two different teenagers also killed themselves in protest of continued Chinese rule over Tibet. The Dalai Lama has both faced criticism in China as the source of these suicides and officially called for the Chinese government to examine how its policies have contributed to these and other protest suicides.

In Mali, on the other hand, the decision to express political disagreement through suicide was also present, but mixed into the on-going multifaceted struggle over the form and number of states that will emerge from modern Mali. Presumably a member of the more hardline Islamist movements, one attacker this week killed themselves and seven others, all members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and more moderate Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) at a checkpoint in Kidal. This is one in a long string of attacks throughout northern Mali or Azawad, which have targeted the civilian population, French forces, the MNLA, and now the MIA. This is another indication that the “hard” Islamists are turning on moderates and rebels who likewise fought for the self determination of Azawad. Whether France will be as motivated to assist the liberation movements as it was to prevent the disintegration of the undemocratic government of Mali remains to be seen.

(Marco McMillan who had been a main contender for mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, from here.)

In the US, a mayoral candidate for Clarksdale, Mississippi, Marco McMillan was found dead in a river. While a majority of the population has long been Black, it’s also been a site of much racist violence, including one incident where Aaron Henry, who eventually became the head of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, was dragged to the Clarksdale jail while handcuffed to the back of a truck. The current mayor of Clarksdale, Henry Espy, was the first and as of yet only Black mayor of the town. McMillan had hoped to replace him as the second Black mayor and the first openly gay one. It remains unclear what his campaign will do in light of his death.

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It’s colonial, get over it

TW: military intervention, neocolonialism

In the past couple of days, I’ve been seeing Bruce Whitehouse’s blog generally and his specific post on the various flawed narratives of what’s really going in in the French (and to a lesser extent West African) intervention in Mali. I made it quite clear yesterday that I don’t think asking actual Malians living in Bamako to comment on the conflict isn’t going to lead to a very representative understanding of how the conflict is understood by Malians in general, and I’m even more skeptical when it’s an anthropologist who moved to Mali later in life (although he is fluent in at least one local language, so props to Whitehouse).

Still, while his explanation of how the Clash of Civilizations going on is hardly the one many European and American observers have perceived is rather insightful, and he makes a lot of other good points, his leading and third ones are astoundingly bad. He starts out his debunking by saying that there’s not really much in the way of mineral resources in north Mali or Azawad, at least, and this is a direct quote, “of which I’m aware”. Oh, can you spot the problem with me, dear readers?

Yes, the majority of the gold deposits aren’t located in rebel-controlled areas, the actual extent of gas and oil reserves is probably not as much as hoped for, and there is a big uranium deposit in Faléa, in the southern, non-rebel-controlled part of the country. What isn’t true, however, is that that’s the only uranium deposit in the country, as the Malian government’s  website for their own conference on mineral reserves notes, there’s also the “Kidal Project, in the north eastern part of Mali, with an area of 19,930 km2” which is expected to further the reserves in Faléa along with the uranium in the Samit deposit. The Samit deposit, like the reserves in Kidal, is located in the rebel-controlled northwest, and “is thought to [contain] 200 tonnes” of uranium if not more.

As the website gushes over the mineral wealth in Mali it mentions what Whitehouse was aware of – the gold and uranium in the South, but also the scattered bauxite and iron ores in the center of the country, and what’s more the deposits of that incredibly pricey metal, copper, in the north. There’s also reserves of phosphates, tin, and zinc in the north that have proven extensive. Funny how none of those got a mention while the minerals that Whitehouse knows aren’t actually all that prevalent in the north did?

In any case, it’s clear that a government that could control the entire territory that Mali is currently recognized as controlling would have, should we say a diverse portfolio of natural resources to sell at profits? Unlike most export-dependent economies, the variety of resources in play would shield Mali from the short term but unpredictable threat of unstable global prices (well, except on copper, which again, is costly and just getting pricier).

(Looks like the Malian government had that same thought and foolishly said it out loud on their website for their conference on mineral extraction in the country. From here.)

Of course, that’s not just to the benefit of Mali, but also whichever country owns or even simply invests in the Malian mines. Speaking of which, is the fact that many of the French national hostages captured in the region were working for French mining companies another thing that Whitehouse and others who are certain this isn’t about resources or neo-colonial just aren’t “aware” of?

Ah, but Whitehouse has anticipated this sort of argument – after all, he explains, “Operation Serval was a last resort, whereas a few years ago it would have been the default option.” Because colonialism is definitely about how occupying forces feel about their actions, rather than their powers and impacts on the region they occupy and the world in general. Likewise, there’s an interesting belief here that colonialism was never interested in intermediaries or non-military means of exploitation. I’ve already talked about how in other corners of Africa, European powers ruled through local authorities which allowed them to avoid frequent and direct military confrontations, so let’s just call that point what it is – a wishful need for this to not be colonialism.

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Al Jazeera messed up bad

TW: military intervention

Do you ever read something that’s so shockingly idiotic that you can’t even comprehend it at first? Because that was my experience with this Al Jazeera article on the supposed high public support in Mali for the French intervention.

To sum up, let’s start with the obvious problem with asking Malians in Bamako what they think of an intervention in north Mali. For those following along at home, Bamako is part of south Mali, so labeling your poll of the nation’s capital, which is outside of the affected region, “Mali Speaks”, is more than disingenuous, it’s erasive. It treats the position of a few hundred Malians in Bamako as the presumed default for the entire country, even on issues that affect Bamako differently.

(A map of Mali and its major cities shows this apparently difficult to discern truth – Bamako hasn’t experienced the Touareg uprisings, islamist occupation, or French intervention. So, how are Bamako residents representative? Image made by Evan Centanni.)

How does the intervention affect Bamako differently? It’s more than a simple fact that the intervention has focused its military forces in other regions than were the capital is located, it’s also that the not terribly democratic regime situated in Bamako is being bolstered by the intervention. From its inception, the intervention in Mali has been linked to the idea of saving the south-situated Malian government, and the avoidance of the thorny questions about Touareg nationalism, to say nothing of asking why islamism has so quickly become so powerful in northern Mali or Azawad.

Speaking of Azawad, the question sent out to those few hundred residents of Bamako was very interestingly phrased in that it pretty much rules out any possibility of there being an independent state or autonomous region in the area. So, for the small minority of Bamako residents who might be interested in such a solution, there’s no way to quickly and succinctly text back to the Al Jazeera affiliate that sent out the original query explaining how their opinions on the issue don’t fit the question they were asked.

Did I say text? Yes I did, the survey is not only geographically restricted to the Bamako metropolitan area, but also requires an active response from respondents via text messages. Even the Al Jazeera article admits that the portion of the Malian population being drawn from by sending out text messages is only “more than two-thirds of Malians.” What’s more, access to a cell phone is probably a good indicator of socio-economic class, which in turn will probably be one of the experience that will inform a Malian person’s support for the existing government. Should we be congratulating them for at least not using internet-based telecommunications, which only 2.7 percent of Malians (or even as Al Jazeera admits, about 3 percent) have access to?

And yes, I mentioned earlier that this is all self-reported, and avowedly for secular Arabophone and Western media consumption. Who do you think, of the political factions in Mali, is going to most strongly value the opinions of those audiences, be the most interested in engaging with those audiences, and ultimately communicate with an Al Jazeera affiliate that identified itself as such when it sent out the text? People who might be among those that view Al Jazeera as pro-Western and pro-Gulf-States propaganda aren’t going to be terribly interested in interacting with the station or its affiliates, are they? And that’s before we even get into how self-reported data tends to lead to all sorts of distortions in statistics even without systemic biases, like a distrust in those gathering the data.

Between this and France24 (sorry only in French) asking whether the French government might use the internet to its advantage while intervening in Mali, I have to wonder, is this blameless bias, or is there intent behind this? Or can I really believe that two separate people in multiple cases typed in the same responses word-for-word, for the several sentences they sent back?

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The missed opportunity in Mali

TW: military intervention, civilian casualties

Last Sunday, the Malian government celebrating their advances back into the North and France’s President François Hollande declaring the French involvement in the area an untarnished success. The following day, both governments received an opportunity which they decided wasn’t worth it. For their rejection of it, they and the residents of northern Mali have already begun to pay the price, the full sum of which I’m not sure of.

The opportunity offered them was a statement released by the Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesperson for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In it, he essentially stated that the Touareg rebels in the North, who have previously complicated Malian anti-islamist efforts, would be willing to be part of a unified front against the islamists alongside the Malian and French governments. The cost was pretty simple – they would be recognized as at least an autonomous region and legitimate representative of the disenfranchised Touareg population of Mali. To my knowledge, neither the French nor the Malian governments responded publicly to this offer, as they both clearly do not want to give the MNLA any sort of legitimacy, as that might threaten their existing deals over the mineral rights of the region.

Even with their optimistic statements on Sunday, with the war begun in earnest the usefulness of an ally rather familiar with the terrain and population of north Mali seems to have become more clear. The rally against the islamists was supposed to have begun in the city of Konna, but it’s starting to become clear that the islamists either never lost control of it, or quickly regained its territory. Likewise, the Guardian reported that-

“On Monday, the French military bombed Islamist bases in Douentza, 500 miles north of Bamako [the capital of the recognized Malian government], for the fourth day running. However, the fundamentalists were reported to have already fled the town.”

In short, that bombing campaign near exclusively hit civilians, rather than islamists, which is only going to prove anyone’s point that the French and Malian governments and military forces have other interests in the region besides claims to protect the civilians from the brutality of islamist rule.

(North Malian protesters demanding the liberation of predominantly Touareg cities in the region, almost one year ago. Originally from here.)

Perhaps having an ally who could have more accurately reported the presence of islamist militants in Konna and the lack of them in Douentza was something the French and Malian governments should have more carefully considered.

Of course, much the damage is already done, with the war-related sealing of the Algerian border leading to food shortages in the far North, and throughout the region most civilians fleeing out of the major cities to avoid the bombing campaigns (available only in French, sorry). While that might help them escape certain death, it tends to remove them from areas with much in the way of medical supplies, leading to currently unnumbered casualties.

In their actions, the French and Malian governments have made clear to the civilians of north Mali that they’re just as likely to brutalize them as the islamist occupiers. That might bolster recruits for the islamists, but I suspect that primarily the MNLA will see quite a groundswell of support. In either case, those governments have acted quite foolishly, and they might not know it yet, but they’ve already begun paying the price.

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We don’t call it “decadence” so it’s different…

There’s a lot that’s begun happening in the past few days, namely the French invasion of Mali and the explosion of cissexist polemics and excellent responses in the UK. Unfortunately, I think both of those stories need more time to develop before I can write about them. So, as an interlude, let’s point and laugh at David Brooks’ syllabus for the class he’s been invited to teach at Yale.

First off, let’s all chortle over the fact that Brooks has including his own work in the assigned reading courses, both as part of the initial, introductory readings and at the end. Not only is that an academic faux pas, it’s also unbelievably funny, since the course is so ‘wittily’ titled “The Humility Course.”

Secondly, let’s get serious and note the fundamental core of Brooks’ argument is essentially no more sophisticated than screeching “DECADENCE!” at people he views as his political antagonists. His point I think is most succinctly expressed in the second and third weeks’ summaries, which explain, “We will explore the cultural shift that took place between 1950s and today against the character code of the old elite, including the thinking of Carl Rodgers and a more meritocratic system […] What have been the effects of this cultural shift? Has there been a rise in narcissism?”. Yes, Brooks is seriously arguing that the modern culture of the US became “narcissistic” because of the meritocracy that the New Deal and other reforms established. Pay no attention to Reagan, that object of cultic fixation who began dismantling the safety net, apparently.

Third, let’s laugh a little at realizing that this is the best he’s got. I think David Brooks is many things, but I doubt he’d go into teaching at Yale without as much preparation as he could. No, this is the fruit of his labors, which asks, “How was MLK and the civil rights movement influenced by Niebuhran thought?”. The obvious answer is very little, other than Martin Luther King once saying that Niebuhr had made a good point that “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals”. Meanwhile, Niebuhr was busy avoiding involvement in the civil rights movement, since the philosophy he developed is basically “screw it all, I’ll just let the world be terrible.” There’s also the added ‘hilarity’ of a White man teaching about how another White man supposedly informed and influenced the civil rights movement.

(Undergraduate tuition in Yale has begun increasing exponentially. Graph from here.)

Glad to see that’s going to such good use.

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