Tag Archives: syria

The final spirit

This is the fourth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, or the full series.

Trigger warning: war, racism, islamophobia, ableism

When we last left Scrooge, he had just been introduced to a boy who represented the characteristic (ignorance) he had just displayed about how a huge chunk of the world’s population lives. The dying spirit who had shown him the child told him that across the boy’s forehead was written one word: doom. As if that’s not enough to spook Scrooge somewhat, that spirit then vanished into thin air, making room for one of the most iconic characters in this story to enter.

christmas future final.jpg
(From here.)

In Dickens’ words, the final spirit is-

“shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

[Scrooge] felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.”

In spite of its rather chilling appearance, Scrooge’s turn from isolation towards interaction holds firm. He speaks to the spirit, telling it among other things, “I am prepared to bear your company and do it with a thankful heart.”

Wordlessly, the spirit then conducts him on a similar tour of his surroundings. There’s a series of business-minded men who discuss an unnamed colleague’s recent death in unemotional and even disparaging terms. The man’s death is a passing topic, like the weather. The spirit then transports Scrooge from the genteel detachment exhibited among them to its more naked counterpart among those hocking items they’d taken from the dead man’s house.

In a pawnshop, three of them met unexpectedly – one an employee of an undertaker, another a charwoman (basically a part of the cleaning staff), and the other a laundress. As the pull out of their parcels all sorts of random items taken from the dead’s house:

“They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found that there was nothing more to come.”

The cold calculation that this dead man’s life is reduced to is the horror in this story. Since many know before reading it who the man is or otherwise pick up on the many references in the story to his wealth, it’s easy to read this and think of this dehumanizing reduction of him as a universal human problem. He’s a wealthy man however, who doesn’t experience this until he dies at a ripe old age – not everyone is so lucky.

Throughout this year, similar calculations have been made about those in less stable standing – living and working in war zones, on the edge of empires, or disabled within the heart of them. Most recently, this sort of mathematics applied to human lives led to the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, the on-going demands to “vet” Syrian refugees, and the social abandonment of thousands of disabled people in the UK many of whom have since died.

When Scrooge begs the spirit to see someone moved by this death, as he begins to suspect who it may be, he gets a taste of how this older man came to be looked at as a resource and not a person. In a nutshell, he treated others that way, engaging in his own calculations not dissimilar to others’ that have had medical centers torched, survivors of war zones denied refuge, and the disabled left to die.

The only emotion stirred by the death that the spirit can show him is that of thankful reprieve – a couple indebted to the dead man eat better, sleep better, and breathe better knowing they have a few more days to pay off their debt, if it isn’t outright forgiven. Their creditor is something other than human to everyone else in part because he saw them as simply costs, revenues, and resources – just as he in turn shrewdly saw them.

Scrooge begs the spirit to show him something outside of this morose world of seeing others in such a dehumanizing light and in turn being seen that way. It takes him to a now familiar house – his employee’s. Bob Cratchit is deep in grief for Tiny Tim, something which many adaptations manage to show quite well. What’s less common for them to capture is what comes later out of his mouth. He asks his children –

“”[H]owever and whenever we part from one another , I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim – shall we?  – or this first parting that there was among us?’

‘Never, Father!’ cried they all.”

The grief never totally dissipates from the Cratchits’ home, but there is tenderness and remembrance that cuts it down to manageable size. This other way for the world to exist is one predicated on empathy and love, and it’s one in which the cold can be fought off and warmth shared. It seems callous to write off the Cratchits as quite simply “not broken” over the death of one of their children or siblings, but there is a resilience often lost in adaptations of this story, which speaks to the durability of the alternative they embody to an unfeeling world.

Scrooge is pulled away from his look into that world by the spirit. His doubts around him, he has a bit of a relapse of his avoidance-centered way of approaching the world. He runs away from where the spirit points to look at where his current office is, someone else is inside. When the spirit collects him from there and takes him to a graveyard, he won’t look at the headstone at which the spirit points – instead he asks a question of the spirit. For a return to his self-isolating ways, he seems remarkably reliant on interaction as a means to avoid looking at what he doesn’t want to see.

Having all but guessed who the dead man is, Scrooge begs the spirit to at least once speak and explain if these visions of the future are changeable. His only hope is to alter them, and he reasons out that there is no purpose in showing him his doom if he has no means to avoid it. The spirit offers no confirmation of that or other reassurance though – it simply points with its one feature, still to one particular grave. It bears Scrooge’s name.

Scrooge sinks to his knees and pleads to be told that he can change these outcomes, then insists he will heed the warnings he has been given by these spirits, and ultimately, catches the spirit’s hand and won’t let it go. It’s not clear what causes Scrooge to wake up in his own bed, the phantom transformed into his bedpost – his promise to be different or his demonstration of that by reaching out and grasping someone else. It’s a bit of the magic in the story that it can be both and between the two.

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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of chemical weapons

Trigger warning: Syrian civil war, war crimes

The Republican Presidential Primary has now seen five debates. Since the second one, at which former CEO Carly Fiorina made her national debut, there’s been few changes in the rhetoric and claims made by candidates in appearance after appearance.

One of the most interesting consistencies is Senator Rand Paul’s fierce insistence on a mildly pro-Assad stance. Part of the strangeness of this is that this puts him outside of the Assad-critical consensus which includes everyone from his competitors in the primary to President Obama. These aren’t just rare politics, however, but ones that speak to an intriguing contradiction at the heart of American libertarianism.

The still technically reigning president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, essentially inherited his position from his father after his brother, initially favored, died unexpectedly in a car accident. He has held a prominent national position since the mid-1990s, with only dubious democratic checks on his rule. Ignited by the international Arab Spring in 2012 and fueled by local droughts and famines, much of Syria has been engaged in open revolt against his regime for several years now. The remnants of al-Assad’s government have resorted to widespread use of chemical weapons, prompting the current US administration to categorically reject any involvement in Syria designed to shore up his rule.

The son of a charismatic leader thrust into protracted and toxic battles to retain territory, perhaps al-Assad reminds Senator Paul of himself. Whatever personal readings he has of the man, his libertarian ethos seems to take a backseat to a curiously pro-Assad policy plank without question. Paul stands with, intriguingly enough, a large chunk of the US and broader world in insisting that we can’t back Daesh and other islamist groups in the prolonged Syrian conflict. As he put it last night:

We had people coming to our Foreign Relations Committee and saying, ‘Oh, we need to arm the allies of Al Qaida.’ They are still saying this. It is a crazy notion. This is the biggest debate we should be having tonight is is regime change a good idea; has it been a good idea.

This uncontroversial carefulness when picking people to support in Syria (and the broader Islamic world), based on more than simply opposition to dictatorships, is woven into his larger, stranger political view of the Middle East, however. As he also explained in that debate:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow.”

This reduction down of the Syrian conflict into a binary choice between locally quite bloodthirsty secular dictatorship and theocracy with aspirations of terrorizing the globe seems politically useful, if you want people outside of Syria to ultimately accept al-Assad and his regime as a “lesser of two evils”. Unfortunately, it presumes a lot of not necessarily true facts: that someone has to be supported in the Syrian conflict, and that no alternatives to al-Assad’s government and Daesh exist (the Kurdish separatists, among others, are apparently not worth mentioning).

syria conflict map
Syrian military blocs’ holdings, as of his summer, from here.

What’s truly shocking, however, is to hear this acceptance of systemic violence and despotism as inherently how Syria and perhaps the broader Islamic world simply have to be coming out of the mouth of libertarian widely criticized for his idealism. The idealist rhetoric which permeates Senator Paul’s worldview, or at least political perspective within the US’s borders, melts away, leaving behind an undemocratic and even imperialistic skeleton.

An interesting implication of this is that all of the language favored by libertarians, or at least the ones who agree with Senator Paul, obscures something. It’s not possible that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty, if Syrian’s lives and liberties can so coolly be considered and bartered away on the other side of the world.

It suggests that only some people are truly included in the loftiest defenses of all “human beings” or that “life and liberty” are so incoherently defined in practice that dictatorships like al-Assad’s can quite easily still fit into the definition of a government which provides them. Maybe it’s both – that liberty in (at least some forms of) libertarianism is a privilege reserved for a select few and one defined in a broken way designed to excuse and permit quite literal autocracy.

Something no one seems to be asking is for Senator Paul to explain himself on his, how someone who claims to center a universal human right to liberty in his politics can also be one of the leading figures calling for us to tacitly or even directly support one of the most violent regimes on the planet. I hope he we can hear his answer to gain some clarity on what’s happening here.

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Bigger than Trump

Trigger warning: islamophobia, war, mass surveillance

Donald Trump has returned to dominate lists of trending tags with an astounding call to bar all Muslims – only days later clarifying citizens would probably be exempt – from entering the United States. His campaign underscored exactly what he was talking about when asked to clarify. He really means everyone, from immigrants to refugees to tourists, with a complete and total ban on admission into the United States for any amount of time.

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Cordoba House supporters protesting in New York City in 2010, from here.

With that, the Republican front-runner has managed to do the unthinkable, and draw criticism from not only outside of his party but also some of the most militant voices in the Republican establishment for being too vocally or categorically or extremely anti-Muslim. Dick Cheney, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham have spoken out, in Graham’s case with a request for a Party-wide rebuke of Trump.

That speaks to an odd, scapegoating dynamic. Trump isn’t the source of anti-Muslim attitudes in the US, he’s simply ridden them (and related prejudices) to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. The establishment or establishment-approved voices now calling for a rejection of Trump and his politics have all dabbled in the building blocks of his call for an anti-Muslim travel ban. Previously a number of other candidates had called for a smaller scale version of the precise same thing, with a complete ban on Muslim refugees, including establishment-favorite Jeb Bush.

I’ve touched on this before, but the anti-Muslim elements that Trump has put out in full display have long been woven into the national politics in the US. The language not only Republicans or conservatives but almost everyone in political discussion uses to describe militancy or oppression – jihad, Taliban, Mecca- is studded with words borrowed from various Islamic contexts. Their use draws on that negative image of Muslims, and repurposes some of that. That speaks to the way that islamophobia has become a public resource, tapped into to find ways of characterizing others you disagree with.

More unique to the American rightwing, however, has been the development of an entire industry devoted to weaponizing that. The research cited by Trump’s campaign to justify their proposed policy has come under scrutiny for its lack of rigor. The study, however, speaks to the vast web of connections within anti-Muslim conservative politics, in which the head of the group conducting the study was active in stirring up a whole series of panics over the past few years.

In 2011, Frank Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy inspired multiple Republican congressional representatives and several Republican-controlled state governments to look into the possibility of efforts to enshrine Sharia law within the US. From there, his organization’s periodicals and pamphlets shifted to trying to root out a first Iranian, later Wahhabi conspiracy within the White House. In each of those cases, Gaffney explicitly sought out “a new and improved counterpart to the Cold War-era’s HUAC” and Republicans at both the national and state level attempted to deliver.

While extremist figures in the Republican Party tilted at those windmills, like representative Peter King and former representative Michele Bachmann, Gaffney’s description of a US at existential risk appears to have circulated in other, more establishment-aligned Republican circles. Presidential contender Marco Rubio is widely considered the moderate Republican alternative to the imploding Jeb Bush, and his campaign seems to be making “civilizational struggle,” a tweaked version of Gaffney’s “civilizational jihad,” their main refrain.

The policy prescriptions within these discussions are quite predictable – bans on immigration or even visitation, more militarization at US borders, more US military presence and operations in Muslim-majority countries. It’s at its core the state-centered politics that a number of conservatives spent 2009 declaring their abject opposition to, only to call for all that and quite literally a reboot of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As has been said before, it’s a smaller government… for some. For others, namely Muslims, it’s a sprawling global system of mass surveillance and warfare.

decartur
Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat” by Dennis Malone Carter in 1804, a depiction of the first conflict in which the US flag was planted in military triumph – in a majority Muslim territory’s soil. From here.

The Republican efforts to win at the state or local level often with these investigations and policy ideas speaks to which side ultimately wins between the establishment and the base.

The national party has a campaign war chest and their share of candidates. Still, their money has lost handily to Trump going national with what’s worked for them at the state level. In the meantime, establishment-friendly candidates like Bush and Rubio have been presenting policies and making claims cut from the same anti-Muslim cloth.

Trump is just one person, saying more obviously and at the national level what’s been said throughout the Republican Party and more broadly even for years. It’s worked in more local elections, and so far in this primary the same sort of thing has only helped him amass support. National polls haven’t yet documented whether Trump’s support has eroded after his recent comments, but initial signs show his appeal only growing within the primary.

Just like the steady drift towards a more heavy-handed solution in conversations among self-described libertarians, he’s simply following a Republican playbook to its logical conclusion. Doesn’t that say more about the playbook than about him?

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In the aftermath

Trigger warning: terrorism, abortion, sexism, war, racism, police violence, violence against protesters

In the past couple of months, almost every region in the world has been rocked by a shocking and violent event. When writing about those, it feels like an easy trap to fall into where almost all coverage is about the immediate happenings, and the wake they have left behind is swept under the rug. Here’s a Friday Let-Me-Link-You rundown of some shocking and interesting observations that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Making abortion a visible part of life

Following the Black Friday shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, many have asked how that might affect the public discussions on abortion and the on-going debates about various new restrictions on access to abortion and other reproductive health services. On Tuesday’s episode of Podcast for America, Rebecca Traister appeared as a guest, and highlighted recent and more long term coverage she has done on how the changing types of participants in public office has begun to alter the way these medical procedures are talked about.

At its core, she noted that not only are more (cisgender) women in prominent political positions, but that they are increasingly women of color and women from more difficult economic backgrounds. Able to raise their personal experiences in debates, they have helped transform abortion in public consciousness from a “dirty” thing “those people” do into a messy thing that many do.

Assad: the greatest threat in Syria?

Just as that shooting in Colorado has brought abortion rights and anti-abortion violence to the fore in the US, the attacks in Paris reignited predominantly Western interests in resolving Syria, as a hypothetical means of preventing further attacks in their part of the world. In light of that, President Obama’s staunchly anti-Assad policy has come under criticism, with a number of political powers all but declaring that they prefer Assad’s dictatorial regime to the violent start-up of Da’esh.

An image put together by the anti-Da’esh and anti-Assad Syria Campaign and shared on Facebook this week by the German activist group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) clarifies that anti-Assad policies’ roots. As it shows, a vast majority of deaths in Syria have been from Assad’s forces:

deaths assad daesh(From here.)

Like many Obama administration policies, there is a very logical political and moral calculus behind the choice. In this case, all lost lives – Syrian and Western – are understood as tragic, and when tallied up it’s recognized that one of the greatest threats to life in general isn’t necessarily the flashiest or even the ones terrorists deliberately designed to shock.

South Africa Internet Availability: closing the floodgates

Meanwhile, international and local media in South Africa continue to pick apart what exactly happened at an October student protest in Cape Town that caught a lot of attention for its White participants’ attempt to shield protesters of color from the police. The underlying motivations behind the protest highlight familiar problems in higher education throughout the world – that tuition hikes are particularly affecting the poor and Black and particularly poor and Black, that the children of non-academic university staff are no longer guaranteed certain tuition benefits reinforcing class inequalities, and that the campus and curriculum valorize a colonial past.

That said, the history of Apartheid weighs heavily, and gravely concerns the many protesters who were born after the overtly legally-sanctioned racial hierarchy in South Africa was dismantled.

The Washington Post noted recently that this student protest was particularly innovative for South Africa in how it used modern social media to create discussion spaces, organize, and articulate activist goals. More than simply an importation of a global protest model, that also showed a reversal in terms of which parts of South African society could most easily use an online medium in political activity:

Social media has been a growing influence in South African politics for a while: think of how former opposition party leader Helen Zille (of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, or DA) has become known for tweeting from the hip, and landed her in trouble for unguarded remarks. Zille’s twitter dominance of course reflected racial disparities (then still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa. Not for long, though. Zille and the DA were gradually deposed by the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Twitter smarts (especially that of its young MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and its leader Julius Malema) and what passes for#BlackTwitter in South Africa.

The government of South Africa appears to be rallying against these changes, according to an assessment of proposed legal changes published by Access Now earlier this week. The increasingly diverse twitter landscape in South Africa has motivated the creation of a “a series of new crimes for unlawful activity online” which just on the heels of this major protest would “pose a risk to freedom of expression”.

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A broader understanding of LGBT issues

Trigger warning: heterosexism, cissexism

It’s hard to believe, but much earlier this month, Senator Al Franken was campaigning for a new batch of anti-discrimination measures at the federal level for LGBT people. Designed to impact the negative experiences of members of those communities when seeking out or using housing, employment, or other basic economic arrangements, this was just a new chapter in a far longer history, of seeking a broader set of anti-discrimination LGBT-minded protections.

It’s strange to note that that’s where some prominent members of the federal government were focusing at the beginning of this month, because public discussion has quickly move on to other topics. Franken hasn’t changed positions on that or any other LGBT-related policies, nor have most people in the federal government or at more local levels. In the wake of the Paris attacks, however, political debate in the US has solidified around the on-going humanitarian and security concerns raised by the intensifying conflict born out of the unresolved Syrian Civil War.

All Out, an international LGBT advocacy organization, has implicitly called into question whether we can necessarily talk about either of those issues that way – with LGBT rights and the instability in the Middle East as totally separate topics. While a recent fundraising request from them highlighted LGBT asylum seekers from countries in that region with various experiences with the Syrian Civil War, it included a key mention of a same-gender Syrian couple, displaced by a number of factors in the war-torn nation.

In a months-earlier debate about asylum seekers and refugee camps in the US, the anti-LGBT aspects of who had been displaced and what special considerations they might need were largely overlooked. This new refugee crisis is an opportunity for the US to be more thoughtful of those dimensions of what people are at greatest risk and need inclusion and respect in the asylum-seeking and refugee-status-attaining process.

Even now, the legal statuses of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America remain uncertain. In the near future, many are expected to undergo immigration court assessments, often only swayed when children “prove they have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent” – but not necessarily with particular attention to anti-LGBT animus that may have motivated or influenced the abuse, abandonment, or neglect.

gay_asylum_seekersFrom here.

The chance to step up and address the complicated aspects of these and other immigration-related crises is on-going. In both of these major incidents, unique attention to the needs of LGBT people hasn’t been paid.

There is growing awareness of the need to do just that in the basic functioning of our society with policies like ENDA. In a more complex examination of how countries and institutions work, not so much. An LGBT-mindful approach to immigration has yet have been incorporated into the legal oversight that determines the fates of ultimately millions of people. The way in which discussions so far about LGBT rights have been treated as fundamentally a different discussion than those about the needs of Syrian refugees suggests that unfortunately, that will likely remain the case.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

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The Five Most Crucial Moments in Last Night’s Debate

Trigger warning: anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism, linguistic imperialism, slavery, abortion, colonialism, islamophobia

Last night, fifteen candidates in the Republican Presidential Primary appeared on CNN over the course of two debates lasting five hours. Almost every word said by their entire group will cast longer shadows than I think most realize, not only through the primary, but into the general election. In such a crowded and raucous field, these individual statements are going to define how many people think about the Republican Party and will play a key role regardless of whether the candidate who said them is necessarily nominated. Here are the five that stood out to me as most emphatically defining the party and its eventual nominee to the general public.

Lindsey Graham didn’t dogwhistle quietly enough

In the lower tier debate round, a number of candidates were asked to speak at greater length on immigration policy than those in the upper tier. For many, the trick was to both avoid alienating statements about immigration that could harm their favorability with many ethnic communities or that would mark them as opposed to the heavy-handed approach to immigration that appears to have built Donald Trump a base of support overnight.

Lindsey Graham intriguingly attempted to not only triangulate between those two diametrically opposed constituencies but also stress the policy desires of business interests within the Republican coalition with the argument that immigration is necessary to maintain economic efficiency. That third consideration may have been too many balls in the air for him to juggle properly, and led to him speaking a bit less indirectly to the racial and ethnic dimensions of anti-immigration sentiments within the Republican Party. As Graham himself put it-

I have a little different take on where the country is going on this issue. Number one, in 1950, there were 16 workers for every retiree. How many are there today? There’s three. In 20 years, there’s going to be two, and you’re going to have 80 million baby boomers like me retiree in mass wanting a Social Security check, and their Medicare bills paid. We’re going to need more legal immigration. Let’s just make it logical. Let’s pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico. […] We’re not going to deport 11 million people here illegally, but we’ll start with felons, and off they go. And, as to the rest, you can stay, but you got to learn our language. I don’t speak it very well, well, look how far I’ve come? Speaking English is a good thing. […] I never met an illegal Canadian.

Part of what this reveals is that the comparatively pro-immigration business wing of the Republican Party is quite comfortable with racially and ethnically charged devaluing of specifically Latin@ immigrants, but more broadly immigrants of color in general. That isn’t precisely groundbreaking, but potentially Graham made that obvious to people who hadn’t seen or realized it before. Their alternative to a total restriction on immigration is a restitution of sorts of the historical immigration policies the US has had, which encouraged the “right kind” of immigrants. Whether that will as neatly translate into racially and ethnically “desirable” immigrants as it historically has remains to be seen, but the emphasis on racial and ethnic contrasts between Canada and Mexico that Graham relies on seem to suggest that that’s the case.

With Graham failing to subtly reassure the anti-immigrant parts of the Republican base without telegraphing the racially and ethnically-charged nature of his immigration platform, you would think his dodge and miss would have led to an outcry. According to the google analytics, however, he captured most of the attention over the course of the lower tier debate. He failed to come off as being motivated by legality rather than race and ethnicity in animus towards immigrants, but he managed to appeal to two other typically Republican constituencies: White nativists and the business community. If that benefits him, that will confirm for many hesitant voters what the Republican Party stands for and what policies it as a cultural force wants to advance.

Did Carson just say he wants to reintroduce slavery?

Speaking of the ultimate fate of the millions of undocumented people in the country, Ben Carson touted his plan for them in more extemporaneous detail that he previously has. On the face of it, it’s quite garden variety Republican policy. The currently undocumented people in the US can’t receive citizenship directly without penalty because that would be “jumping the line” or something similar in the eyes of anti-immigrant groups. Carson takes a page from both the compassionate conservative and business community however, and rejected at least the official language of deportation or the immediate hostility towards a guest worker program. The policy carved out by those separate rejections is that immigrants will be offered a guest working program with potentially the eventual ability to apply for citizenship, but with a number of restrictions placed on that to make it as inaccessible for them as possible.

What Carson added last night to that was the florid image that this workforce bereft of the benefits of citizenship would be toiling, specifically, in the fields. The tone of it calls into question whether those guest worker statuses would permit them much latitude in choosing the nature of their work, their employer, and other basic rights taken for granted by many. In effect, they would constitute a legally captive labor force with slim chances dependent on others’ mercy to be granted protections and liberties purported for all but actually reserved for a few.

slaves in fieldUnnamed slaves in a field by an uncredited photographer. From here.

Does that strike anyone else as sounding familiar?

Unlike Graham, Carson isn’t auditioning to make it out of the lower tier of candidates but is rather attempting to maintain his upper-to-middle-of-the-pack status. What’s more, he has to do this as a Black man in a primary election defined by voicing anger, something he may not be able to do without facing negative repercussions others wouldn’t. From those two facts spring a selection of uncomfortable possibilities.

However these statements affect his rank will speak loudly about what exactly it means to be a Republican and more generally vote or support for any of them. Beyond that, they are also a reflection of the historical amnesia and detachment from present realities to be a plausible Black Republican candidate. Simultaneously, this is showcasing to the broader public the policies desired within Republican circles and reflecting the limitations and requirements put upon Black people within those spaces.

Fiorina tried tapping into Trump’s base’s anger

Just before the first debate I tweeted a couple of questions that I wanted anyone reading to keep in mind while watching. One of the most important in retrospect was-

With Carly Fiorina rising from the lower tier and Carson’s surge to second place in many polls, those two candidates seemed both best poised to use their momentum to capitalize on any weakness by Trump. The actual answer to this appears to have been, intriguingly: both.

Carson focused on being an affable contrast to Trump, down to a very even-tempered and counter-conflict personality. He was careful to appear to be that directly towards Trump as well, potentially shaving support off of Trump’s by being policy-wise similar but potentially more palatable from a social standpoint.

Fiorina, alternatively, wasn’t interested in playing the good cop to Trump’s bad cop. She worked to outdo Trump himself in channeling the anger that catapulted him to the front of the polls. She used that far more strategically, building to a fiery crescendo that drew some of the biggest applause of the night:

While Carson may have made some small in roads with a careful play, Fiorina took a big risk in trying to bottle Trump’s base’s anger and redirect it, largely not towards Latin@ immigrants but towards comprehensive healthcare and Iranians. The hostility towards those seen as less important and less socially valuable is maintained, but put to work in ways that safely advance Republican policies more directly in line with the party’s economic elite, in terms of dismantling the health provisions for low income women and boldly insisting on absolute fidelity towards US interests by other countries.

Part of Trump’s whole appeal is that he is breaking the establishment’s mold, so it’s unclear that Fiorina’s play won’t backfire. Keep your eyes peeled to see if the party’s core can camouflage itself with the periphery’s fiery emotions.

The first casualty is the truth

For many this is unsurprising. Everyone expects politicians to fudge the truth in their favor. What’s more, to be fair it can be pretty difficult to be on-call to speak with complete accuracy on all sorts of topics the way they must. That said, the stretched truths in this debate reflect a growing problem within Republican politics, however, where the entire basis for a set of policy decisions is a complete fabrication. The problem is no longer a lie that’s convenient but that’s the entire foundation of a political stance. Immediately after Fiorina’s denouncement of a Planned Parenthood video a whole slew of tweets like this one went out:

The supposed torture of a not only viable fetus, but one that was living after being aborted should, in a reasonable world, tip people off that what’s being stated isn’t true. Not only did that false anecdote prompt invective and applause, however, but it’s the emotional crux at the heart of the fierce demands for absolute defunding of Planned Parenthood.

My own personal version of this was the insistence that not only do most countries not have “birthright citizenship” but that, according to Trump, Mexico is one of them. In a word, that’s wrong.

More generally, while most of the world does indeed have its citizenship system based in jus sanguinis (family background) rather than jus soli (location of birth), the normal state of things in mainland countries in the Americas is to have a basis in jus soli – only Colombia is an exception to that. So, while there is a technical global rejection of that, the hemisphere-wide norm is one that the US fits. The idea of us being strange in terms of that and specifically different from Mexico is, however, the basis of an argument for undoing our legal standards for how citizenship is passed down to specifically target communities of recent immigrants.

One both issues, major candidates are not only stretching the truth, but creating an idea of what is true to validate a political stance that has made them wildly popular. I’ve written before about the unrealness of politics in the US and an emerging post-truth politics, but this is a jolting resurrection of those attitudes after they proved rather useless in the 2012 elections.

Rand Paul endorses secular dicatorships

For those who have been reading this blog for many years, you might remember my misgivings with the libertarian counter to standard Republican security policy. In a nutshell, the criticisms don’t seem to be motivated by much concern for the people most likely to experience violence justified in the name of “national security” so much as fear that that violence is likely to eventually be used against other groups or otherwise is poorly supervised. Rand Paul has long been the most visible example of those types of pseudo-dovish politics on a national stage. He didn’t disappoint on that last night when he explained-

[S]ometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East. Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.

The possible concern for how US military interventions negatively affect people in the targeted countries is papered over with the fear that they jeopardize if not undermine other US policy objectives. Out of the mouth of the libertarian candidate, supposed speaker for liberty in the room, comes a defense of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, which outside of Syria have by and large operated with significant US support. This is the alternative within the GOP’s major candidates to a neoconservative crypto-colonial approach towards the Middle East: a selective mix of that and a more historied colonial attitude that democracy is a privilege we can deny other nations. That not only limits the debate in that room but speaks to what the limits of the Republican Party’s policies are.

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A transcript of the main round of the debate can be found here, and a transcript of the initial round here.

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When Maddow finally goes too far…

TW: Syrian conflict, US imperialism

There’s an interesting post that’s made rounds on Tumblr as of late that talks about Rachel Maddow as being fundamentally an apologist for US imperialism and other forms of military aggression, who wraps herself in the cloak of queer liberation and democratic norms. It seems that never has this been more clear than in her most recently electronically available show, which she bookended with two very intriguing if unsettling pieces on the current push within the US for intervention in Syria.

First, she mentions how Obama has broken with previous policy (namely that of Reagan’s) by requesting congressional approval for the conflict before acting (at least, so far). This builds on her book, Drift, which in turn is a more publicly palatable version of her earlier academic work. In short, it’s at least a democratically investigated and analyzed intervention. To be fair, her original works made clear that democratic standards provided some checks on imperialist and interventionist drives within the White House, but there’s no rigid guarantee in that, so she conveniently fails to raise that issue.

Ultimately, she concludes the show on a similar note, asking her audience to imagine a US under the leadership of Obama’s 2008 rival McCain. She runs through the list of countries McCain has suggested we should be bombing, have invaded, or continued the Bush-era occupations of. The implication is clear – the democratic elements to political governance in the US have resulted in a less militaristic governance than they could have (twice even!).


(From here.)

In short, she’s framed the entire discussion around how this intervention (presumed to be inevitable in essence) constitutes a “better” interventionism. The actual ostensible goals – of detaining Assad, penalizing chemical weapons use on the international stage, or cutting short the on-going Syrian conflict – all become minor or nonexistent parts of the policy equation. “It’s not as bad as it could be” cloaks the entire show. Never mind whether we’re an empire, at least we’re democratic in our pursuit of global hegemony!

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The news that might not seem like news

TW: Iraq-Iran War, Syrian Civil War, chemical warfare, war crimes, US imperialism, neocolonialism

Given how it’s been widely known (just rarely acknowledged) that the US was involved in providing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran War, at first glance the revelations reported by Foreign Policy might seem unremarkable. But the devil in this case is very much so in the details.


(The shaded portions of Iraq and Iran were occupied by the other country during the 8 year war, and were likely sites of chemical attacks on civilians and Iranian forces by the Iraqi government.)

As Shane Harris and Matthew Aid explained in their article:

U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent. The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

In other words, the US did more than simply provide illicit materials, it made certain that those chemical weapons would be used with maximum effectiveness, to guarantee a winner in the war. What was just strongly shown was how true many of the long-standing complaints about that war were. It was transformed from a local war into a larger proxy conflict through the US’s and other military powers’ involvement. A blind eye was turned towards war crimes during it. It is an iconic example of flawed US foreign policy in the Muslim world.

This revelation has the obvious political impact of revealing the US hypocrisy in beginning to intervene in Syria in response to chemical weapons use during the revolution-turned-civil-war in that country. I suspect someone will soon point out that many of the Syrian casualties have been non-combatant civilians, unlike during the Iraq-Iran War. Never mind that the CIA’s own 1983 documents concluded that “If the Iraqis produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and towns near the border” (emphasis added).

During the drive towards the Iraq invasion under the more recent Bush administration, the chemical weapons massacres of Kurds and Shia protesters in Iraq were seen as an entirely separate set of events from the more neutral events of the Iraq-Iran War, but that entire framing was clearly, by our own government’s assessment, inaccurate. There was a clear connection between the use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops and their use on Iraqi civilians (as well as Iranians as well) suspected on the basis of their communal identities to be sympathetic to the Iranians.

We knowingly created conditions highly similar to those in play today in Syria. There’s no other way of explain this.

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Arabs: surprisingly non-identical

The New York Times has really suffered from some decline in recent years – look no further than Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone’s recent reporting on the developing crisis in Egypt. It’s rich in generalizations from the region to Egypt and from Egypt to the region. The real core of their point seems to have been:

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. […] What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.

The strangeness to the article’s argument is underneath it’s waffling examination of the futility or effectiveness of the Arab Spring and its subsequent results. The odd framing of it rests in this way of considering the whole Arab world, which reduces it down into a singular political experience, an “Arab politics” of sorts. While dynamic in that it admits that political upheaval has happened, it creates a sense of profound continuity in that it presents the dysfunction found in several Arab states as a comparatively stagnant trait. Arab people are consequently in this view tied together and tied to the past century’s politics.

But are those assumptions warranted? As yesterday’s coverage by Egypt-based media outlets showed, Christian minorities in Egypt have played a very dynamic role in first tentatively supporting the revolution and now tentatively supporting the counter-revolution (in response to seemingly unorganized so far anti-Christian violence). This stands in contrast with the situation in Syria and Tunisia, actually, where Christians have respectively long had a much closer relationship with the state power structures for many decades and are a significantly smaller part of the population.

2013-08-15_1821
(Tunisia is the darkest green value with nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim population. Egypt is a notably lighter green with approximately 10 percent of its population being Christian. Syria has even larger non-Muslim minorities and is also, unlike Egypt’s and Syria’s, very divided between Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.)

In fact, Tunisia’s internal issues can be fairly easily summarized as being two overlapping conflicts – one over how to fix the ailing economy and another over what degree of islamist political influence is ideal. While economic issues are common to the region (and rooted largely in common difficulties with unemployment, rising utilities costs, and housing), the particulars of the religious population of those three Arab-majority nations is reflected in what social fault lines exist (both among Muslims and between them and other religious groups).

Properly understanding those unique aspects to various predominantly Arab countries is central to evaluating their different conflicts as well as built on a way of talking about the Arab world (which by most estimates is significantly larger than the United States in population) that doesn’t reduce it to a singular set of conditions. That’s what the New York Times did yesterday, however, and its readers understanding of what’s happening in all of those countries potentially suffered for it.

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An overlooked complication in Syria…

TW: Syrian revolution, Palestinian diaspora

Yesterday, the Ma’an News Agency reported the death of multiple Palestinians in Syria, several of whom were non-combatant civilians living in the Yarmouk refugee camp. That brings to the fore an often overlooked part of the conflict in Syria – there’s already well over 100,000 Palestinian refugees registered as living in Yarmouk alone, with nearly half a million of them in Syria altogether. Even as there’s extensive discussions about the increasing proportion of the Syrian population living abroad or within Syria as refugees, it seems often unexamined how many of those people were already refugees, had been born refugees, and whose own parents might have been born as refugees.


(An image of the camp being attacked, from here.)

The issue of course is complex. There are estimated to be multiple millions of refugees as a result of the conflict in Syria who aren’t Palestinian as well as millions of Palestinian refugees who were displaced within current Israeli-controlled spaces or to other countries besides Syria. But it seems crucial to acknowledge that many thousands of people fall into both the groups of people displaced by the Israeli government and those dislocated by Syrian regime.

This is the world that various influence people, organizations, and states have allowed to come into existence: one where there are now two overlapping refugee crises in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Myanmar is an unpopulated country

TW: colonialism, neo-colonialism

I’ve been on something of a kick going through past and present reporting by The Economist as of late. More than finding woefully (and probably willfully) myopic looks at rebels in Syria, it’s been a rather varied treasure trove of distilled nonsense. For instance, their coverage of the 2012 US presidential election was woefully naïve, and had eleven states held up as “toss-ups” on November 2, before uploading an updated report on November 7 where they awkwardly admit that Obama won ten of those “toss-ups” (they complain that the popular vote was much closer, but inaccurately report the results as 51 percent Obama when it was closer to 53 percent). Of course, there were all those voices that pointed out that such results shouldn’t have been terribly surprising.


(The gas and oil pipelines being constructed from Kauk Phyu in Myanmar into China, from here.)

Naturally, none of that can compare to discussing Myanmar as a location and not a, well, populated area. Yes, Myanmar has the potential to be an important location for ports where goods would be shipped to and from urban centers in eastern China, Bangkok in Thailand, and even the rather poor territories in northeastern India. At least there’s assertions that the people living in those areas will see increased economic security or opportunities as a result of this, even if there’s no substance to those claims. The various Burmese peoples aren’t mentioned but implied to be in the way between Chinese and Thai consumers and oil imports. How that might jeopardize the trade surrounding Singapore, Malaysia and even Indonesia goes unmentioned and the precise economic impact (other than “trade”) on one of the poorest parts of India isn’t elaborated on.

Given this pattern of discussion where entire populations are erased from consideration, which was a key part of their coverage (if it can even be called that) of Syria, it seems as though The Economist‘s staff needs to be reminded just that certain groups even exist. I thought we could expect more from an internationally-read paper.

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