Tag Archives: genocide

Who hustles the hustler?

Trigger warning: racism, antisemitism, the Holocaust

After months of progressives gnashing their teeth that Donald Trump only adds a glean of faux-populism to policy ideas that are straight out of Atlas Shrugged, many are celebrating that his campaign may have finally let the cat out of the bag.

With the Republican nomination locked up, one of Trump’s most prominent and earliest supporters, representative Chris Collins (R-NY) has qualified the Border Wall as probably going to just be “virtual”, and the mass deportations Trump has discussed as being “rhetorical”. The deeply xenophobic mentalities that animate a plurality of average Republican primary voters – quite literally popular ideas – have a long history of being floated by major Republicans only to be yanked back. For all his promises to break that pattern, it looks like Trump might at least go through the motions of moderation.

So in light of this apparent change of tone, the right-wing coalition continues to threaten to dissolve and their most likely success case isn’t the worst case scenario for people of color and others targeted by their politics. Amidst the overly eager left-wing cracking out the champagne, let’s all consider how Trump’s primary supporters will take the news about being tricked once again.

While these quotes began to surface describing how minimal and non-corporeal the anti-immigrant regime will turn out, a piece of Trump’s base pasted the face of journalist Julia Ioffe on to the photograph of Auschwitz prisoner number 6874 and sent her directly images contrasting “bad Jews” – antisemitic caricatures of Jewish men – with “good Jews” – a lampshade with the same caricature’s face.

(From the collection of images she was sent or found, republished here.)

What prompted this avalanche of antisemitism towards Ioffe? She had questioned Melania Trump’s narrative about her family – and particularly her father – having traditional values. Ioffe had dug deeper, found a cavalierly abandoned half-brother Melania’s father had from an earlier relationship, and published in spite of a (noted in her article)  request for her to “respect [Melania’s father’s] privacy”. She interviewed the estranged relative himself for her piece. It seems he weighed in differently on  whether he should be included in this portrait of Melania’s Slovenian family.

The people still sending Ioffe Holocaust imagery edited to update it for more Trump-related uses think they have already won. They aren’t being guarded with their language on Twitter, because they don’t think there’s any reason to be – Trump has essentially won the nomination and they expect him to win the general election. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s calling a Jewish journalist on blocked numbers and playing clips from Hitler’s speeches. The antisemitism isn’t new, but there’s a degree of brashness Trump has allowed it to adopt – because that type of attitude is what allowed him to upend all the expectations in the Republican primary.

In aggregate, this country’s social mores aren’t actually designed so that you can’t win prominent party nominations while advocating ethnic cleansing. That secret, historically the lynchpin of this extremist group not taking control of the Republican Party, is out. This isn’t going away. If anything, it’s going to get worse.

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Genocide, Global Warming, and Garland

Dramatic announcements abounded this week, suggesting what issues to watch in the coming days.

Da’esh declared genocidal

On Monday, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that declared that the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq occupied by the Islamic State was genocidal. Several Christian advocacy groups, with varying relationships with the region, have taken this as something of a political victory, although the ramifications remain unclear – genocide is a crime, and there now exists a complex set of international courts designed to evaluate allegations of it.

As one interesting essay published by the Centre for Research on Globalization on this issue noted-

Using the word can itself be a moral assertion, and with that assertion comes the requisite action.  At least this is the theory – words generate expectations and the need for a physical component. Designating a conflict as genocidal triggers a range of obligations, as implied by the Genocide Convention itself.  The lawyers have to be mobilised; the police and military arms of the state must be readied for capturing the offenders, and more importantly, the imperative to take humanitarian measures might involve the use of armed force.

In short, it is telling that the clearest stipulation in the measure is that political figures “should call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” When it comes to actually responding to the reality of the violence it only vaguely suggests that “member states of the United Nations should coordinate urgently on measures to prevent further war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The language seems to suggest that both peacekeeping and international court activity are possible as a response, but this is only one stop in a longer conversation about what the US and and should do in the region.

California’s starting to hint at a carbon-neutral economy to come

After years of negative predictions about the Californian economy and expectations that economic alternatives capable of mitigating climate change come from English cities with names like Grimsby, Mother Jones has taken an in depth look at the emerging carbon-neutral economy in the state:

The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning and community development, says, “This is money we never expected.”

What’s more, the things that made the Californian economy such a nice target of criticism were basically what made this possible:

“You need the coercive power of government,” he told the crowd. One of the reasons why California’s utilities already get so much of their power from renewables, he said, was because “they have no choice. The government said, ‘Do it, or you’re going to pay huge fines.'” Brown likes to upend the standard argument about government regulation gumming up innovation. To him, it’s the opposite: Regulations push businesses to try new things.

How about that? The full article warns that the state’s regulatory bodies anticipate setting even more ambitious goals for the next decades, which it remains to be seen if California can meet.

Garland’s shoe-in

A cavalcade of House Republicans have accidentally opened up that they might bother to confirm Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The catch is that they are willing to do that provided the Democratic nominee wins in the general election in November, accepting the more moderate and older Garland over a hypothetical younger radical. Garland’s nomination on March 16 would then wait until November 8 at the earliest for confirmation or rejection. That “best case” would weigh in at a 236 day wait – easily a record in US history.

2016-03-18_1458(The most recent nominations, from here.)

In fact, the only nomination to that office that was more than half that amount of time was Louis Brandeis’ which clocked in at 125 days. His was tied up in part because of his connection to many then radically progressive causes, exacerbated by the fact that, as one fellow Justice put it, “the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

Garland, since he is also Jewish, wouldn’t be a similar first for the court, and actually was selected as an alternative to one – Sri Srinivasan, who would have been the first Hindu nominee. Likewise, although comparatively liberal in contrast to the Justice he would replace, he is in no way intimately tied to today’s radical causes – his primary work has been in fairly normal prosecutor duties related to terrorism. Will Republicans really wait that long to make the choice they expect they’ll have to make anyway?

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Antonin Scalia – the justice who gave us so much unnecessary contempt while handing down dismissive and even capricious decisions – died on Saturday. While many have focused on the astounding kerfuffle that’s developed, in which Senate Republicans apparently are going to avoid confirming a Supreme Court Justice for eleven months, I’m more interested in taking a moment to remember Scalia before his prominence in this “originalist” era begins to gather dust.

Justice Scalia was a man that’s easy to dismiss as a motley of contradictions. He demanded that LGBT people remain a criminalized class in the name of preventing governmental tyranny. He argued that Black people should receive lesser educational opportunities in the name of their own well being. He cheerfully supported the limits to election spending being the size of your donors’ pocketbooks in the name of free speech. Underneath these baffling justifications, so easily torn down – often delightfully by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is a kind of stunningly consistent judicial logic. His guiding principle seems to have been that the powerful could define how things were and should be, and that he was very glad to hold an appointed life-long position of power.

At times it’s been presented as a bastardization of his own claims to “textualism” that he supported such a deeply anti-democratic view of politics and the world. That of course involves a certain rosey look at the past that Scalia elevated into an all-encompassing justification. The writings he, and for that matter his colleagues on the court, pour over and cite either were written by or derived from the works of slave owners engaged in genocidal campaigns of colonization. Might makes right isn’t that much of an importation really. What set Scalia apart, even from other conservatives on the court, was his dogmatic insistence that the framers were literally never wrong.

Scalia was a product of an often forgotten era – of Reagan’s shining city upon a hill. The 1980s saw the sudden emergence of an almost mythic devotion to a historically murky period, drawing phrases from a 1630 sermon and connecting them to institutions born from a 1787 political convention. Reagan gave a voice to a conservative backlash to what for some was a frightening new world of LGBT liberation and the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t matter if they were nonsensical appeals to an inconsistent and complex past as long as they served those suddenly on the defensive as a source of comfort. Scalia’s constitutionalism was to some degree little more than an intellectually buttressed version of the same argument from historical authority in the name of authority itself.

The term-less appointment to the Supreme Court let Antonin Scalia sit as a reminder of that time period even while Reagan gave way to Bush, then Clinton, and ultimately Obama. Anthony Kennedy, a centrist alternative put forward after Robert Bork had made it too clear what power for power’s sake looked like, never so fully encapsulated what that Reagan-era moment in history looked like, and has had a judicial career that lived beyond it. Scalia was there alongside him of course, writing more dissents and opinions than almost any other justice in history, but his judicial outlook seemed frozen in time compared to Kennedy’s. At the end of the day, he could only shout at the slow but steady advancement past that Reagan-era reaction or align himself with the positively Macchiavellian rightwing adaptations to that new climate.

Even as people politically opposed to him – again there’s always Ginsberg – mourn him, there is some recognition in liberal circles that what has passed is not just this man but the era that produced him. Far more than former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s passing of his position to current Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia’s death portends a new structural alignment on the court. Any nominee from Obama, even a comparatively centrist one, is going to tip the fragile balance further to the left on most issues.

A Republican blockade against sitting any appointee from the president is the perfect procedural issue to fire up the liberal vote in the 2016 races, and an almost guarantee that another Democratic president would issue their nominations to a more friendly Senate in 2017. Insisting that no one be seated is a complaint with essentially no point, since the anger is that an era is over. Republicans might as well direct those complaints at the demographic shifts in the country, at the transformation of their social wedge issues into liabilities, at the failure of their promised prosperity to manifest for most.

Much like how liberal appointments in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s, the growing liberal bloc on the Supreme Court is a reflection of what has followed Reagan – Clinton’s and Obama’s two-term administrations. The Supreme Court serves as a sort of record of what came before, softly echoing the presidency and to a lesser extent congress. Part of what died on Saturday was the tangible impact of Ronald Reagan, and the political party which still holds debates at his presidential library doesn’t seem to be taking it well.

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Thanks for everything

Trigger warning: racism, colonialism, genocide

On last year’s Thanksgiving, A Tribe Called Red came out with this song. The only audible lyrics in it are dialogue pulled from the 1993 movie, “Addams Family Values”. In the hands of the three indigenous DJs that comprise A Tribe Called Red, the skewering of a liberal, false multiculturalism by a White actress in a White director’s film became a vehicle for them to reclaim space in the public consciousness and express their communities’ anger at colonialism.

This year, that tradition has been furthered, with indigenous activists raising their own voices rather than reworking others to express themselves. Earlier this week, Cut, an online video producing group, released one of their word association videos. They have previously created other videos with only indigenous respondents for those when creating a Columbus Day video (in which the prompt was just “Christopher Columbus”).

This holiday’s video followed the same format but had a unique feeling of brutal honesty, as indigenous people spoke very openly about one of the greatest conflicts at the heart of Thanksgiving. All at once it is a modern holiday that even they sometimes participate in, but it is also one founded on a biased if not violently inaccurate understanding of American history. It’s painful to hear how difficult navigating this holiday remains for them and their families, but necessary for all of us who do something for the holiday to remember, particularly on the day of it.

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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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Trump doubles down

Trigger warning: islamophobia, racism, genocide

By this point you’ve hopefully seen the brief clip of Donald Trump in New Hampshire being asked a somewhat rambling question, which to make matters worse he interrupted. What was asked went something like this:

“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even American. Birth certificates, man. But anyway, we have training camps [of Muslims] growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question – when can we get rid of them?”

Many others besides me immediately flashed back to a similarly confused question that then presidential nominee John McCain had to field about the very same Barack Obama, in which he was called an Arab and implied to be a Muslim. There are so many familiar parts of this – the use of Muslim as an inherent signifier of lesser or no value, the casual implication of genocidal mass killing, and the paranoid fixation on Obama apparently at the heart of a vast conspiracy. Donald Trump knows how to capture a Zeitgeist, but there is something this statement and the reactions to it will reveal.

In the coming reaction to his statements, something of a nation-wide test is going to be unknowingly conducted. When McCain haltingly rejected the fears of the woman who had approached him there were dual reactions among his supporters. For some, this signaled that what had attracted them to the McCain-Palin cause was not necessarily going to be entirely backed by its future administration. For others, this signaled worryingly about who their political camp had let inside the gate and, as Sarah Palin demonstrated, hold increasingly prominent and powerful positions within the party.

After that, the Republican fold actually lost a lot of supporters, who decided the conservative outfit no longer represented what they thought it did if a woman asked a question like that. Alternatively, the continued campaigns of people like Donald Trump meant that very few of those disappointed that McCain didn’t agree actually left the party. They might not have voted for McCain, but they remained active Republicans in other arenas.

What Trump has presented here is in part the fallout of that. When a sizable percentage of a major party leaves because of racist rhetoric, you’re only left with the racists (and also, only the racists to appeal to, as Trump’s broader primary success shows). We’re not just before the general so any straggling defectors won’t be from the party, but will be most likely to other candidates. The real question is, what are their numbers? How many people are left in the Republican Party that neither tolerate nor personally endorse these ideas about people of color, Muslims, and a score of other marginalized groups? Are they significant enough – numerically or otherwise – in the Republican Party to affect the nomination process?

The reality is that the answer to that is probably no, because of the process that has occurred to a large extent since the most recent Bush Administration. The Republican Party has bled supporters since then, alienated at times not just but socially unaccepted language about vulnerable groups, but because they themselves are members of the groups attacked. Muslim communities themselves in the US once leaned towards Republicans. The reality that has left Republican candidates with is to go big, like The Donald himself, or go home. There’s virtually no other constituency left within the party, at least one which can meaningfully challenge its power or numerically best it. The Republican Party can only turn out candidates who act this way because those are the candidates it wants.

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Denali denial

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, slavery, the Confederacy, genocide

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the US Board of Geographic Names would no longer refer to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, by that name but rather by the indigenous Athabaskan name, Denali. This is actually a purely federal change that follows the renaming of the south-central Alaskan mountain by the Alaskan Board of Geographic Names, which began officially using the original name in 1980. In fact, Republican Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski praised the change while noting that the mountain had been known as Denali for centuries.

Denali_Mt_McKinleyMount Denali’s highest point is 20,237 feet above sea level and has the largest mass of a single mountain in the world.

Even this largely symbolic reclamation of US land has prompted hostility and racism on the part of many commentators, however. Conservative news sites like Breitbart had their zingers ready, even including “Obama has now solved all the world’s problems, and decided against his second choice [of a name], Mt. Trayvon.” More seriously however, they noted (apparently in disagreement) that “President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments” such as stifling indigenous rule in Hawaii and otherwise expanding the US’s colonial rule and spheres of influence – namely over Cuba. Snopes already has a helpful page up explaining that Denali doesn’t mean “Black Power in Kenyan” (among the inaccuracies there – Kenyan is a nationality, not a language). Iowan Republican Senator Steve King joined the fray as well, seemingly under the impression that the name was somehow constitutionally mandated:

The change has tapped into a clear hotbed of paranoia that White historical figures won’t be remembered (or at least honored with monuments and other named sites). What’s feared instead is that present and historical Black people or indigenous cultural figures and concepts will be. These fears are being expressed in the midst of White people organizing to preserve emblems of and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. As the New Yorker described one meeting led by Donald Trump supporter and White nationalist Michael Hill:

When Hill took the stage, he told his compatriots that the recent lowering of the Confederate flag was just the beginning. Soon, he warned, adopting the unspecified ‘they,’ they will come for the ‘monuments, battlefields, parks, cemeteries, street names, even the dead themselves.’ The crowd was on its feet, cheering him on. ‘This, my friends, is cultural genocide,’ he said, adding, ‘Often, as history has shown, cultural genocide is merely a prelude to physical genocide.’

Denali was renamed to honor the President of a conquering people – a statement of White power –  and so it’s been imagined that it now being renamed by the first Black President must similarly be a statement of Black power. To even hint at addressing the pain of conquest and enslavement that is American history is interpreted as having to mean redirecting and recreating those pains. Slavery and colonization were genocidal, realizing that’s the case isn’t, but denying that difference is politically necessary for many.

Breitbart posed a question in their coverage of this: “when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan [sic]?” Much like the belief that Denali means “Black power” in “Kenyan” this reveals not only a colonial ignorance (it’s spelled Aztlán, is a more specific location than the entire Southwest, and has a specific importance in Aztec history) but also a strange paranoia. What is the problem with recognizing the indigenous group’s names for various parts of that land? What does it threaten and why should anyone care? The cord struck struck for many by these name changes show something vulnerable is being exposed.

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Haunted by history

Trigger Warning: nuclear warfare, racism, genocide

The first Republican presidential primary debate will be held tonight at 6 pm Pacific / 9 pm Eastern. Much of the pre-debate analysis has so far emphasized the newly invented (and continuously updated) metrics for determining which of the seventeen major candidates could appear on stage and otherwise be as visible as possible. I won’t be able to livetweet tonight’s debate, and probably won’t even be available to offer any commentary at all while the debates occur, so I won’t be around to question and complicate that somewhat narrow focus on the debaters themselves. Instead, I want to ask a small thing of you while you watch it without me. Before the debate begins, meditate on two curiously coincidental anniversaries that fall on today of all days, and cast their long historical shadow on the current policy prescriptions of the Republican Party.

On August 6, 1945, the United States used the first atomic weapon ever used in wartime on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The vast majority of affected people were non-combative civilians, which by some estimates caused approximately 66,000 deaths in the initial blast. That fails to account for many of the deaths in the following months, form exposure and resulting poverty as well as from radiation sickness and related complications – but which are also estimated to number in the thousands.

The overwhelming nature of the death and destruction in Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) is something that the United States has failed to fully grapple with, if the tantrum-like demands for a similarly apocalyptic war with Iran among some political figures is any indication. Instead, conflict and war has become almost an invisible backdrop of American life, shielding those who expect war without debate or question from criticism. US military deployment has become a perpetual state of being on multiple continents, seemingly without even a hypothetical end. As Guantánamo reminds us, this military infrastructure is often on other countries’ land, unwanted, and in some senses an occupying force. We have yet to fully break with this expansive militaristic tradition, but keep your ears peeled tonight to see how much the Republican Party’s major candidates want to reject the possibility of ever doing that.

On August 6, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) into law, securing most particularly the rights of Black citizens of the United States of access to the ballot box, but giving similar protections to various other systemically disenfranchised groups – namely indigenous and Latin@ communities. Since then, these guarantees have come under an unforgiving cynicism from conservative figures either coordinating with or directly a part of the Republican Party. The aims are at times quite transparent, particularly in the less official political circles, where talk of “demographic winter” makes obvious the racist fears underpinning a large swathe of the conservative movement.

As the United States steadily returns to being, among other things, a less White country, there have been a number of political responses. Chief among them has been to softly roll back numerical presence as a force within our democratic system, most obviously by resurrecting voter suppression tactics common in places where the White population was a minority or a much slimmer majority than electorally desirable. Jim Crow and related policies of racist political, social, and economic control have not been dismantled fully, but the specific policies of the Republican Party have become ones designed to maintain what has remained and reconstruct what parts of those have been dismantled. Listen to hear the new, politically correct (or not so much) those policies will be discussed tonight.

hiroshima also vra(Left – Hiroshima after the bombing, Right – President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks after the VRA was signed. From here and here respectively)

So, on the night of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the VRA help the phantoms those events raise haunt the Republican Party. As desires of military confrontation with Iran are raised, let the image of the shattered Atomic Dome rise in your mind. When talk of the need to protect the ballot box from voter fraud comes up, allow the pain of the tear gas used on those on the March to Selma pass over you. These are our ghosts, and we cannot will them away. Don’t help the Republican Primary brush them off either – either in how they talk about them, or refuse to talk about them altogether.

The featured image for this article is an drawn rendition of the Oglala Lakota’s Ghost Dance as performed at Pine Ridge in 1890, from here. There are many ghosts in US history.

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This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.

(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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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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The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.

(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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Give thanks

TW: military coups, ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, political killings

I am thankful that I live in a country with democratic norms that are strong enough to prevent military coups.

I am thankful that at least one country that is not so lucky has at least a chance of improvement on that issue.

I am thankful that the United States is neither assisting the military regime nor treating them as a legitimate government, as we have done before throughout the region and previously in that country.

(“In the Freedom Party, the people are the ones that choose (the presidential nominee)” – originally from this excellent Spanish-language overview of the current politics of Honduras.)

I am hopeful for Honduras today.

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Myriad facts about Goma that you didn’t hear today

TW: ethnic cleansing/genocide, warfare

In case you haven’t heard, amid all the coverage of the on-going conflict along the Gazan-Israeli border, there’s also a growing conflict along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yesterday, after days of fighting between government forces and the “M23” rebels in Goma, DRC ended with a decisive anti-government victory. Both the UN and the military forces have stated they won’t immediately contest the city, which has already seen enough fighting and doesn’t deserve another week if not longer of it. The UN and the DRC are sticking to condemnations for the time being.

The comparative silence from the “Western” world over this is intriguing, since we’re not even a year past the infuriating Kony 2012 campaign, which concerned itself with a national situation quite similar to this one. In both cases, a terribly undemocratic government of a former African colony is locked in an incredibly destructive struggle against extremely violent would-be revolutionaries. It’s the ultimate debate between a pair of astoundingly bad “lesser of two evils” – and I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea which one is actually worse. In any case, despite these clear similarities between the two cases, there’s no talk of launching a Ntaganda 2013 campaign, and I suspect that’s more than just motivated by the difficulty anglophones would have with this name.

What’s also interesting, however, is that we’re not seeing the inverse. The M23 is a predominantly Tutsi force, supported by the Tutsi-friendly government of Uganda and largely Tutsi political elite of Rwanda. The military regimes of both of those countries receive a surprising amount of sympathy from their former colonizers, in spite of both of their political use of mass violence.

The awkward fact remains that Kony’s LRA was formed in response to ethnic cleansing in Uganda and that anti-Tutsi sentiment in Rwanda is clearly tied their disproportionately higher society economic status throughout the region during and following colonial rule. It must be added of course that both the efforts at protecting the Acholi and Hutu people of the region have frequently become justifications for killing large numbers of people belonging to those ethnic groups, who are perceived as traitors to the cause. The reactions to these systemic inequalities are sometimes just as indiscriminately violent as the inequalities themselves.

Consequently, it’s hard not to see fertile ground in the DRC for the unilateral understandings of these conflicts which are very prevalent in the US. But there are no reports on the violence that glorify the M23 as a great liberating force for the people of the northeastern DRC, because there’s no reporting at all. This issue is so chronically undervalued in “Western” media, that its presentation isn’t flawed so much as nonexistent.

There are so many reasons to look at this and try to learn something. What’s immediately obvious is that much of sub-Saharan Africa faces the detestable choice between eliminationist revolutionaries and astoundingly violent and insular regimes. Or, to phrase that slightly differently, the choice between military rule and military-to-be rule. What’s less apparent though is how much of this political race for the bottom has been driven by colonial and neo-colonial influence. In Rwanda and Burundi, Belgian rule transformed historical dominance by hazily defined social groups into an immobile racial system that could determine your job, your prospects, and your life. In Uganda, US-based groups have bankrolled gradually more and more fundamentalist Christian politicians, creating a very heterosexist and cissexist political culture.

But what’s more, the example of the DRC shows that the social structures and political boundaries established during the mad dash to colonize Africa still has consequences. Geographically large and diverse, the DRC clearly has multiple population centers beyond the most densely populated band stretching from the capital of Kinshasa in the southwest over to the border with Zambia in the southeast. The rest of the country was largely incorporated together by Belgium to facilitate foreign control over its various useful resources.

(The population density of the DRC, originally from here.)

The political life of the country has not only been concentrated within the political elite but also within that region. Colonization not only favored different ethnic and social groups but also regional ones, leaving the also densely populated areas along the Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian borders out in the cold. Dissatisfied with their government on so many fronts, apathy towards the state’s disintegration or even active support of revolutionaries seems understandable.  Perhaps it was inevitable for Uganda and Rwanda to spread their spheres of influence into technically DRC territory that borders theirs given that it’s so politically disconnected from the power center of the country.

While Uganda’s and Rwanda’s pasts have been terribly bloody, the driving forces have typically come down to determining which ethnic group will monopolize power and wealth, rather than where within the country that wealth is and will remain. For all their flaws, Uganda and Rwanda are still countries with borders that don’t blatantly contradict the existing population distribution, and that’s an advantage they have over the DRC.

Maybe in addition to colonialism intentionally establishing certain ethnicities’ dominance through favoritism, it also unknowingly set up a hierarchy of states when it drew their borders.

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What exactly does Romney think the presidency entails?

TW: genocide, antisemitism

Yesterday, I noted sadly that there was virtually no chance of Romney being pressed on how his past statements suggested that he viewed the office of the United States’ presidency as primarily a kingly position for providing moral example, rather than a key  position in influencing regulatory policies. Although this was still overlooked, Romney graciously gave us another glimpse into his very… unusual view on how the presidency functions during last night’s debate. I am, of course, talking about his call for charging Iranian President Ahmadinejad with genocide. Romney baldly stated during the debate that “[h]is words amount to genocide incitation” and afterwards one of his aides is recorded as having said something along the lines of “the World Court could arrest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cutting off the regime’s leadership in one fell swoop”.

There’s many factual problems there. To begin with, Ahmadinejad is the President within a government that has both a parliamentary legislature (which selects a Prime Minister who has greater control over domestic policy than any President) and theocratic oversight (which clearly exerts some control over Ahmadinejad’s potential policy decisions). Additionally, the contemporary Iranian government is very unique in not providing control of the military to the presidency (which is understandable given the 26 years of military-like violence from the SAVAK secret police under the previous regime). In short, there are numerous positions in the Iranian government that even Wikipedia points to as being more powerful.

Likewise, the words that were tantamount to genocide have been contested as such by even Israeli officials. Even among the supposedly targeted population, it’s not unanimously understood that there was intent to commit genocide behind a single statement years ago.

Lastly, as noted in the article covering the aide’s statement, there is no “World Court” but rather an International Criminal Court (ICC), which is ostensibly what the anonymous Romney aide sent out to spin this line meant to reference. In addition to that misnomer and a staggering misunderstanding of the political structures in Iran and the probable meaning of the statement, Romney’s original statement and the follow-up by an aide suggest a very… interesting interpretation of both international precedent, domestic law, and especially the interaction between the two.

Romney’s initial statement seems perfectly measured. Suggesting charging Ahmadinejad with intent is a reasonable argument based on the clear labeling of intent as sufficient to convict a person of genocide in its legal definition. As the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) puts it, genocide is-

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: {a} Killing members of the group; {b} Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; {c} Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; {d} Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; {e} Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The following acts shall be punishable: {a} Genocide; {b} Conspiracy to commit genocide; {c} Direct and public incitement to commit genocide; {d} Attempt to commit genocide; {e} Complicity in genocide.

Right there – intent is what unifies various state policies (and potentially their effects too) as together a “genocide”. Even simply advocating those policies is grounds for a trial. Except of course, there’s the small matter of precedent. The two sets of convictions provided by the ICC under the CPPCG did incorporate intent, as required, and advocacy, but only when it was already established that selective killings had happened. Intent merely identified those killings as “genocidal” and clarified an intent to do more. Advocacy was likewise legally attached to the action itself. Without significant mass killings, there would likely be no case. What’s more, many examples of recent mass killings organized or tolerated by states can be provided that didn’t lead to convictions or even prosecutions – even that isn’t a guarantee of an ICC trial or guilty decision.

Admittedly, there have been legal cases involving a more active evaluation of intent, most famously the case against Nikola Jorgić for involvement in the genocide of Muslim communities in the former Yugoslavia. The decision reached was that “a biological-physical destruction [of the targets] was not necessary” and “destruction of the group as a social unit in its distinctiveness and particularity and its feeling of belonging together” was alone sufficient. A similar argument could (probably unsuccessfully) be raised against Ahmadinejad. That being said, the highlighting of intent still took place in a case also concerning Jorgić’s leadership in organizing or performing at least 30 murders. What precedent this very intent-heavy case provides is limited in that it still marries intent to observed actions.

Furthermore, it’s note-worthy that the case against Jorgić was not part of the ICC, but a decision by the Oberlandesgericht (high regional court) of Düsseldorf which merely involved evaluating international law in a domestic German case. Even if, somehow, a future President Romney hoped to stretch Jorgić to provide basis for a case against Ahmadinejad only on the grounds of either intending or inciting genocide, it would probably have to be a domestic case. Considering that would require his base to reverse their existing opinions on using international law in domestic cases, that seems like a difficult hypothetical to imagine.

(I’m sure this will go over swimmingly. Image originally from here.)

This paranoia of the (Satanic?) potential for international law to be used against the United States is not only part of popular sentiment, but also our very ratification of the CPPCG, which stipulates

before any dispute to which the United States is a party may be submitted to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice under this article, the specific consent of the United States is required in each case […and] nothing in the Convention requires or authorizes legislation or other action by the United States of America prohibited by the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the United States.

As they say in politics, the optics of this are very bad. With domestic action politically risky, a hypothetical President Romney might try to force this through to the ICC, where it could be easily seen as the United States doing to Iran what it categorically forbid anyone from doing to it. Much like Romney’s international tour, such actions could easily reignite bitter resentment of the United States, which already led to many countries to add statements to their ratification of the treaty condemning the US’s self exemption. Mexico, a key ally, in fact ruled the declaration of the US to be “invalid” and was joined by numerous European allies which argued that it contradicted the very treaty signed and existing international law precedents. The comparison to the USSR and other dictatorships that waived the application of the treaty to themselves is decidedly unflattering.

Ultimately, the choice Romney faces in clarifying this question is between admitting he wants to maintain an international double standard strongly associated with despotic rivals of the United States or if he wants to make domestic rulings on international law equally farcical. In either case, he’s shown a commitment to the law creating specific political outcomes – rather than being universally applied. Rather than undermining the legal concept of habeas corpus by allowing imprisonment without criminal charges, this approach simultaneously immunizes certain actors from charges (like the United States from criminal accusations of genocide) and expands (or reinstitutes) legal grounds for charges against others (like Ahmadinejad being tried on the grounds of inciting or having intent to commit genocide based on an unclear statement). As a result, even if habeas corpus isn’t repealed, the new legal context Romney’s proposing makes it nonsensical. His idea seems impossible without making the United States a nation of men, rather than a nation of laws. And the man on top would have to be called a king.

This is not only an indication like earlier statements that Romney favors a pseudo-royalist governance, but rather inegalitarian judicial policy. This seems to be a growing pattern that statements he makes have implications of dramatically reworking the political landscape of the United States in decidedly undemocratic ways.

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