Tag Archives: uk

Brexit: the Welsh puzzle

The results are in, the markets have panicked, Prime Ministers have stepped down, and no one seems brave enough to press “the big red button” of officially informing the EU that the UK intends to leave. In short, the public referendum to see if the UK would prefer to leave or remain in the EU has been a bit of a mess.

Funnily enough, with support for leave tanking in the wake of several walked back promises on public funding and bans on further immigration, it appears that the vote on the UK’s future in the EU will actually have the greatest impact on the different parts of the UK’s relationships with each other. What’s leaped out at many is the divide between the vastly greater voter pool that is England (which voted in almost all its subdivisions to leave) and the rather different returns among the smaller populations in Northern Ireland and Scotland (both of which decisively voted to remain).

Out of that has come talk of a border referendum in Ireland and renewed interest in Scottish independence. Departition and separation serve on the one hand as vehicles to avoid leaving the EU or speed the process of reentry, but also demonstrate a vulnerability of the UK. On the one hand, it now functions as a democracy, but on the other not only must it wrestle with a past of global colonial violence but modern borders drawn by those processes applied to what once were neighboring nations. One’s former colonial subjects seldom vote to withdraw from the world hand-in-hand with their on-going occupiers.

With a slim majority also voting to leave within Wales, it’s easy to instead summarize the regional differences in the vote as being between north and south rather than colonized and colonizer. That misses some of the complexities of the Welsh vote, which are not only key to understanding what happened there but help contextualize the successes of remain and meaningfulness of the EU to Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Immigration

One of the most decisive discrepancies between how those in England and those in Wales decided to vote on this referendum was in terms of immigration. Especially at the end of the campaign, that issue became squarely central, with EU membership being conflated with a comparatively open borders, less restricted immigration, and more generally the existence of immigrants.

In England, the implications were loud and clear to the foreign-born populations largely concentrated in London, the Southeast of England, and to a lesser extent the Southwest. In part because of immigrant voters, those would be respectively the only English subdivisions that voted in favor of remaining, in favor of leaving by less than the narrow victory in Wales, and the narrowest victory in England still larger than that in Wales. Among other factors, immigrants concerned about the rhetoric and politics of the leave campaign were a key part of the remain vote in England.

The precise opposite demographic tendency shows up in Wales, with the subdivision with the most immigrants – Powys – being the one with the largest leave-lopsided return. The trick to that is that immigrants to England tend to be also immigrants to the UK. Generally speaking, they are people of color from former UK colonies or immigrants from fellow EU countries particularly Poland and other eastern European countries. Those are the populations that have in the wake of the election faced harassment and even violence.

In stark contrast, the majority of immigrants to Wales are immigrants from wthin the UK, and overwhelmingly, they’re English. This is particularly true in, you guessed it, Powys. In stark contrast to the key importance of voters of color in London and elsewhere in England, some of the least immigrated-to parts of Wales were where remain locally won. Bro Morgannwg, Caerdydd (also known as Cardiff), and Sir Fynwy – all along Wales’ comparatively less immigrated-to southern coast – were among the five local areas where remain won.

Born_In_England_2011_Census_Wales

(The percent of local Welsh populations born in England from the 2011 census.)

While immigration is fairly common even along the western coast of Wales, that is also in some ways the nationalist heart of the country – where the highest percentage of the local Welsh population has retained the use of Cymraeg, the Welsh language. That’s where the other two remain-leaning local subdivisions can be found: Ceredigion and Gwynedd.

cymraeg.png

(The cymrophone percentage of the Welsh population, according to the 2011 census.)

Speaking very generally, the most English parts of England tended to vote leave, while the most Welsh parts of Wales tended to vote remain. What was supposedly a referendum on the fate of the whole of the UK was heard very differently not just between locals and immigrants, but different groups of locals.

English colonial legacies

Much has been made about every local major subdivision of Scotland voting in this referendum to remain in the EU. While many have been quick to talk about a divergence between Northern Ireland and Scotland on the one hand and England on the other, it’s important to note that there is not the same level of uniformity in Northern Ireland’s vote.

To those familiar with the contested fate of that corner of the UK, the Brexit vote is just another confirmation of a familiar voter pattern. Stretching from Antrim then south around Belfast while dipping into that city’s eastern neighborhoods, leave won. Everywhere else in Northern Ireland, remain did.

This is a geographic manifestation of the most basic of divisions of that area, baked into the region’s uniquely power-sharing government since the Good Friday Agreement. Those now somewhat ironically called “Unionists” – largely descended from settlers affiliated with the UK’s colonial rule of the whole of Ireland – voted to leave. Those termed “Nationalists” – who typically have precolonial, Irish ethnic ties to the area – voted to remain.

a-NI-identity-1024x480.png

While much of the analysis of this has rightly noted that there were some concrete EU policies driving those different voting patterns – from an Irish desire for harassment-free travel across the border to some unionists’ desire for an isolationist UK that may look the other way if The Troubles return – few have talked about this as a parallel to what can be seen to some extent in Wales.

English immigration is a phenomenon seen in Scotland as well, but in Wales and Northern Ireland it appears to be one more fiercely politically interested in maintaining the image of a powerful UK. It might not always find logical outlets, as the momentarily free falling pound showed, but there is a political constituency in both Northern Ireland and Wales who just seemingly demonstrated they don’t think of themselves as either of those things except in residency.

$350 to the NHS

For all their similarities, however, the voting dynamics in Northern Ireland and Wales don’t perfectly align. While high concentrations of English immigrants were what helped make some of the highest leave returns within Wales, some of the least immigrated-to portions of the country also saw leave majorities. North of Caerdydd, in the heart of Welsh coal country, immigrants from either elsewhere in the UK or the world are rarer than anywhere else in Wales. Those places form the backbone of the Welsh labor movement, which has fallen by the wayside of an inability to deliver equality and dignity amid deindustrialization. They voted last week to leave, in some places by margins not seen elsewhere in Wales.

smith.jpg
(W. Eugene Smith’s “Three Generations of Welsh Miners” taken in 1950 in South Wales, from here.)

This is the portion of Wales most directly invested in the social services of the UK. It’s their Labour votes which propelled the so far only Welsh prime minister, David Lloyd George, into office, in which he laid the groundwork for what would become the National Health Service (NHS).

Although the agitators who forced that and similar provisions through were Welsh, the past century since that has seen the best access to those services quite clearly be designed around locations in England, not Wales. Welsh coal country may not have the worst access to NHS facilities when compared to, say, central Wales, but it remains a pressing issue that they may be redirected to an NHS location in Caerdydd, if not England itself due in part to the lack of resources in Wales.

While the leave campaign led with a dogwhistle about the NHS with mixed results in many polls, one of the places that seemingly played best was among the Welsh especially in coal country. The EU has meant free travel for Irish, and a market for recently discovered mineral deposits for Scots, but it’s been seen as part of a broader disorientating restructuring of the Welsh economy.If anywhere saw a leftist euroskepticism, it was Wales.

The largest bloc of leave voters feeling bitter about suddenly reversed promises to increase NHS funding is undoubtedly the Welsh, and now EU development grants may suddenly dry up as well. Hitched, perhaps soon without Scottish or Irish partners, to an English-led “union,” for many in Wales the lofty question of national independence and the pressing reality of poverty won’t stay two separate discussions with two separate half-successful parties to vote for (Plaid Cymru and Labour respectively).

In a strange way, these Welsh voters helped sabotage the referendum and threatened their anemic local economies, yet may have just forced their nation as a whole to take a long hard look at itself. It’s difficult to picture a Welsh economy without the benefits of the EU, but perhaps a euroskeptical outlook is what might drive Wales to or even passed independence not just from Brussels but also from London.

While Ireland has seen conflict and Scotland has actually staged votes on leaving the UK, Wales has dallied in more gray zones of devolution and greater local autonomy. Tethered to a tanking UK economy, suddenly desperate for a way to outvote English people caught in a frenzy of xenophobia and imperialism reminiscence (that may very well turn on Welsh), and lied to about increased funding for social services – what part of all that tells Welsh people not to start thinking more drastically?

Last week’s vote revealed the several deep tensions within the UK. What’s easy to recognize is how there is already an independent Ireland (and a campaign for its expansion) and a Scottish Nationalist Party. This was blatantly a demonstration of how English people’s politics and theirs diverge. It’s harder to sort through, because it’s more effectively masked, but there’s a lingering echo of the same sentiment in Wales. Whether it can emerge into that level of separatism is a question only time will tell.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Understanding our impacts

This month so far has been full of interesting and often worrisome news about climate change. Here’s a quick rundown of some new discoveries and other confirmations that are already helping us better understand the situation and respond to it.

The tropics swell

It’s long been theorized that one effect of global warming might be that the atmospheric and ocean currents that define the tropics might extend their reach, pushing pole-ward into territory normally regulated by other patterns of air and water movement. With places in the historical tropics seeing record strength storms, it certainly seems like there’s more energy within that part of the climate system. Expansion could be an outlet for that.

hadley-cell-feature-graphic-04.02.16(The Hadley, Ferrel, and polar cells often used to define tropical, temperate, and polar regions, from here.)

Atmospheric scientist Qiang Fu’s now published past decade of work might have confirmed that at least part of that is indeed happening. Some of the most rapidly changing temperatures in the lower atmosphere are happening just outside of the tropical Hadley cells. Previously affected primarily by air and water currents in the temperate parts of the planet, those seem to now be blasted by dry air expelled from the tropics especially in their summer seasons.

Their local climates are one of the stress points where the underlying changes that have already begun are showing more obviously, and for them, the changes are almost all negative – they’ll be hotter, drier, and less predictable. The flurry of droughts in places like California, Australia, Syria, and other already fairly dry places on the edge of the temperate zone indicate where things are headed. Especially in the last of those three, the political and economic ramifications of this are very apparent.

 Things get hazy

A strangely parallel story seems to be happening at the other major meeting point in the climate system – between the temperate and polar zones. In the northern hemisphere, recent years have been marked by a frequently and strongly negative Arctic Oscillation, meaning that the coldest temperatures aren’t as neatly cordoned off by winds near the pole itself as they typically are.

ao negative positive(Negative Oscillation on the left and Positive Oscillation on the right, from here.)

While that does allow for unusually cold air to sink into temperate areas, leading to phenomena like the “polar vortex” in early 2014, it’s not the same as the tropical zones’ expansion into temperate areas. It’s more of an indirect and inconsistent byproduct of the arctic polar cell becoming less stable and coherent, rather than beefed up and encroaching southward. Warmer air from the temperate zone invades it more thoroughly than colder air from the polar zone surges south. Global warming appears to have supercharged these periodic fluxes, bringing warmer air more consistently to the far north.

Although the mechanics of how that happens aren’t fully understood, what is clear is that a surge of unseasonably warm air into the high arctic in the middle of winter is leading to surreal paucity of sea ice. An area of ice more than half the size of Alaska is simply missing, mostly replaced by the darker open water. That’s a new challenge for the ecosystems in that part of the world as well as a worrying suggestion of what more of the world as a whole might like look soon. Worse yet, unlike the lighter ice, the water easily absorbs the sun’s heat, furthering local and global warming.

Accelerating risks

At the other end of the world, the antarctic climate is similarly unstable. The Guardian’s recent report on the long term problems posed by a dramatic sea level rise succinctly described the looming threats to the southern pole:

“We can’t keep building seawalls that are 25m high,” said [Oregon State University Professor Peter] Clark. “Entire populations of cities will eventually have to move.”

By far the greatest contributor to the sea level rise – about 80% – would be the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. Another new study in Nature Climate Change published on Monday reveals that some large Antarctic ice sheets are dangerously close to losing the sea ice shelves that hold back their flow into the ocean.

Huge floating sea ice shelves around Antarctica provide buttresses for the glaciers and ice sheets on the continent. But when they are lost to melting, as happened the with Larsen B shelf in 2002, the speed of flow into the ocean can increase eightfold.

Johannes Fürst, at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany and colleagues, calculated that just 5% of the ice shelf in the Bellingshausen Sea and 7% in the Amundsen Sea can be lost before their buttressing effect vanishes. “This is worrying because it is in these regions that we have observed the highest rates of ice-shelf thinning over the past two decades,” he said.

The antarctic is reaching a key tipping point after which it might start to look drastically different from today, with implications that will be felt around the world.

The good news

Against this backdrop of on-going disasters and horrifying possibilities, a commonly pointed out silver lining is that the transition away from fossil fuels and other aspects of our economic system that drive climate change can have positive economic impacts. A look at one of the regions in the UK furthest along transitioning to clean energy sources suggests that isn’t a far fetched expectation at all.

Grimsby, located on the southeastern coast of England, has historically had exactly the type of economy long criticized for being shortsighted. From fishing to heavy manufacturing, its historical economy was unsustainably built on a model of endless extraction and processing. The main exception to that was the military presence, a source of economic stimulus with its own problems and pitfalls. Given that, Grimsby was until recently a “blackspot” of unemployment, and widely considered economically depressed and unstable.

Interestingly, local action to implement more green technology has largely come about with the private adoption of solar and other clean power sources. That said, that transition seems to have been inspired by national action. The economic interconnections between those still living and working in the area and the United Kingdom’s offshore wind energy helped spur independent projects to create lower impact power sources. A small step towards a greener economy can ripple outwards unexpectedly, but still positively.

As daunting as the tasks ahead are, the study of them is helping us better predict what to anticipate and the study of our own economies is assuaging any fears that we can’t easily address them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

What good does it do?

Rhetorically, there were a number of moments in last night’s debate that seem to have captured parts of the liberal imagination. Hillary Clinton appealed to a basic right to bodily autonomy and to make that right accessible with support for Planned Parenthood and related medical providers. Bernie Sanders unequivocally declared that Black Lives Matter. Martin O’Malley almost captured something similar by stating that bigotry had no room in the Democratic Party, but Jim Webb’s own comments throughout the night called that belief in such a categorical progressiveness into question. Even in that case, Webb’s presence highlighted his out-of-place status in the broader Democratic Party. As Jamelle Bouie put it:

In short, Webb being there only underscored the stated commitments to addressing racial, gendered, and other inequalities. There aren’t really any Dixiecrats anymore. This is what the Democratic Party has become.

So with a tight field of candidates largely competing to be a presidential nominee who could advance that sort of US self image at the highest level in the country, what’s not to love? The Democratic Party has won the popular vote five out of six times in the most recent elections (which translated into four uncontested wins). The Reagan Revolution seems to have been more of a momentary happenstance of White Flight from the Democratic Party that could make the White House an insurmountable Republican fortress.

While White people continue to be a majority of residents of the US, and disproportionately represented in electoral registration and participation, enough didn’t flee the Democratic Party that they and a growing number of voters of color can be a surprisingly effective electoral coalition. It’s tempered by all of the problems inherent in national coalitions – it’s slow-moving, continually renegotiated, and subject to limited radical action – yet it can at least promise to get a lot done and seemingly mean it.

Part of the implied problem there is that there are limits to what any political party can do. Almost by definition, they operate within a standard political process. The closest thing to an alternative are parties like Sinn Féin or historically India’s Congress Party, which are political branches of counter-state forces. The Democratic Party’s origins are rather different from that sort of an organization, and the type of imperial conditions that encourage those types of political parties haven’t existed in the US for several centuries. In the absence of that, a mainstream, gradualist policy-tinkering has become the order of the day.

Even that however is difficult for Democrats to enact on a national scale as the brief window in 2009-2011 showed. As a Party, they held the presidency and majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Healthcare reform debates choked out almost every other reform issue, leaving us with the current situation in which many hallmarks of the Bush era linger – most obviously widespread warfare, indefinite detention centers, and mass surveillance. Deportation actions increased, Guantánamo remains open, and we’re using drones more than ever. Weren’t the Democrats interested in ending all of that? Weren’t there great flowery statements in debates and elsewhere on the campaign trail against those exact things?

There’s a number of other, less intractable factors that could be blamed for that, from fickle Blue Dogs to Filibuster-enabling Joe Lieberman. As much as the Democrats can’t deliver on everything because of the political and electoral system they must work within, there’s also a question of what they can do with a presidency dependent on how well they do in Congress and the states. Tomorrow and later this week I’ll take a look at the prospects of the Democratic Party in down ticket races and what they could potentially make of 2016.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

High expectations

TW: military occupation, civil war

Before anything else, I wanted to quickly apologize for the relatively low number of posts in the past few months. I have been experimenting with several new sources, with the aim of broadening the types of coverage that inform my writing here and elsewhere. One of those has been the World Review, which has an interesting reporting style. Their stated goals paint a picture of news that is fact-driven, values importance over mainstream appeal, and free of editorializing – all admirable aspects to their reporting they generally deliver on. That said, this often comes at the price of context (in spite of promises that their objectivity is shored up by expert analysis). The past two week’s news, as far as I’m concerned, underscores this sort of can’t-see-the-forest-through-the-trees effect, that leaves them a very useful news source, but only for a sort of immediate, fact-establishing reporting.

Last week, they published an article that helpfully highlighted the paradox at the heart of modern Iraq – that there is enormous mineral wealth in that country, but that its concentration in certain circles has led to resentment and instability rather than general prosperity and even investment in a shared future. What’s surprising is actually that this is surprising. The article itself treats this as something of a shock, quite literally elevating it to the opening hook of – “Iraq is now a failed state despite its great oil riches which provide more than 90 per cent of government revenue”.

From a historical perspective, there could be little doubt that Iraq’s wealth would remain concentrated even if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t interested in Shia-dominance in government, business, and society in general. The (sometimes literal) infrastructure of an insular elite has nearly a century of legacy to lean on – beginning with the UK-backed Kingdom of Iraq, then the US-backed Ba’athist regime, and most recently the US occupation famous for its focal points of tight security and economic power. Iraqi governance has been geared towards inegalitarian political and economical realities through decades of foreign influence and subsequent machines in local politics.

Beyond that though, the reality of 90 percent of the government’s revenue coming mineral extraction and export hardly seems like a counterbalance to that very real and very recent history of inequality. While shared resources are not necessarily a definitive source of conflict, the “resource curse” perspective on productive areas of the world remains fairly common. That’s with good reason, not only because of the instability that seems to linger in most parts of the world economically-centered on mineral extraction, but because of how those industries work. Some labor is required, but rarely enough to do more than make a portion of the population see the benefits of successful extraction and exportation.

The primary goal of states, companies, and individuals dependent on the success of those sorts of local economies tends to be security against any ill-wishers from the rest of society. An Iraq dotted with Bremer Walls and compounds of the well-to-do is one that only biases them more towards that sort of security-focused strategy, with profits even furthered maximized by keeping them contained within an incredibly small population. The very rhetoric of the Sunni-supremacist insurgency in northern and western Iraq reflects that reality, as since 2012 they have called for “destroying the walls” – meaning not only the ushering in of a post-state neo-caliphate (destroying many border boundaries), but the current targeting of these islands of security and wealth in Iraq (and groups seen as politically aligned with them, or simply their coreligionists).

bremer
(Bremer Walls in Iraq, from here.)

In short, the history of Iraq and its current dependency on resource extraction and export for income aren’t at odds with each other by a long shot, but have worked together to reinforce an inherently unequal political, economic, and social reality. That modern Iraq is an example of that which can’t absorb the subsequent sectarian and ethnic hostility or negotiate a new sort of society is the actual issue here. With a recent article whose title just gushes with excitement that newly discovered gas deposits in Mozambique will create a brighter future for the country (but which ironically the article itself admits is “at the mercy of a weak and corrupt government” concentrated in a completely different part of the country from the gas-rich region), it’s unclear that the World Review has learned its lesson about high expectations and extraction-based economies.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

The long shadow of Apartheid

TW: racism, Apartheid

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95 years. For many South Africans he occupies an interesting political space – as both something of a founder of their present democracy and the embodiment of its limitations (namely to challenge the economic disparities created under Apartheid rule). From within US and UK politics, however, the present remembrance of Mandela exists in a different awkward context, with almost all figures lionizing Mandela, even those who worked against him and with the Apartheid government for decades. Although Reagan is no longer a living part of that number, there is a largely forgotten history of his and others’ support for that repressive, racist government:

The story doesn’t end there, but rather continues to include Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, and then his selective and incomplete enforcement of it after congress blocked his veto with vote margins unimaginable today. There are many reasons why the perpetual idolization of Reagan by many White, straight, and cisgender Americans is profoundly unsettling for others, but his insistence on negotiation with the settler colonial regime in South Africa should clearly be near the top of that list.

Of course, the story is not merely one of former officials who supported the Apartheid government who are with us only in memory, but familiar faces that remained in power long after casting votes in favor of inaction in that conflict and even the replacement of that state with another that actually allowed the vast majority of its population the right to simply vote.

Many prominent Republicans come to mind, but none more than Dick Cheney, who continued to serve in the Senate for three years after his vote towards the end even advancing to Majority Whip, a leadership position. Following that, he was promoted to Secretary of Defense under President George Bush (the first one). He spent most of the 1990s a well-regarded lobbyist, but returned, with minimal criticism, to politics as Vice President for eight years. He has within conservative circles remained so positively received that his daughter was taken as serious contender in a Senate race for no other reason than her relation to him. While it’s a bit early to tell, her campaign may ostensibly stay afloat purely as a result of his connections and still intact reputation.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan during Reagan's presidency
(Guess that was another thing these two have had in common?)

In short, he has never been held accountable for his role in working against resistance to Apartheid rule. Unshockingly, that lack of accountability has led to him feeling that he was not in fact in the wrong on that, but all along was right in his course of action. Even now, Cheney stands by his record that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists” and that any restriction on the government most directly opposed to them was to be delayed, hindered, or stopped.

Reagan famously explained his position on the sanctions against the Apartheid government as being motivated by an interest in opposing the government responsibly and not too rashly. If that’s the case, then why is this part of his and Cheney’s history so rarely discussed? Why was Mandela still listed as a terrorist by the US government until 2008? Why are defenses of Apartheid specifically and (neo-)colonialism in Africa more broadly still so prevalent among conservatives in the United States?

The United States (among other countries) has never examined its role in maintaining and supporting Apartheid rule. This is the fallout of that – that wide swathes of our country’s politicians and even many citizens still support that system built on the idea of White supremacy and Black servitude. So far, that reality has been inadequately challenged. Let’s change that.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The downside to Glenn Greenwald

TW: police detention, mass surveillance, police brutality

You may have heard about the controversy earlier this week as Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained while returning to the UK from a visit to Brazil. Greenwald was understandably incensed and wrote several thousands of words on the subject for The Guardian over the course of these past few days. While this incident has been largely pushed aside in light of the sentencing news for Chelsea Manning, I think this story from earlier in the week in illuminating in terms of the flaws in Greenwald’s journalistic practices.

To be clear here, this is not to suggest that Greenwald’s reporting on these events was biased or that either he or his partner “deserved” the scrutiny or restrictions placed on them by the UK government (and, as Greenwald and others have alleged, at the US government’s request, which the Obama administration has wholly denied). There’s something of a media campaign underway to paint this issue as reasonable comeuppance for Greenwald and Miranda which is obviously an elaborate profession-wide apology by the highest echelons of US-based journalists who hope to be the best stenographers to power that they can be. Greenwald’s bucking of that trend is something that we should all appreciate, and even if failing that, we shouldn’t hold Miranda culpable for Greenwald’s actions.

That said, the way that Greenwald’s role in reporting international surveillance systems has expanded to experiencing them as well is worrisome. Concerns about bias are understandable, but in this case seem unfounded. Instead, I think the real damage is in how this limits the most public reporting on these issues of the increasing use of mass surveillance by the US and UK governments. As David von Ebers wrote at This Week In Blackness, the UK has its own history of using these same methods of surveillance and detention to crackdown on both anti-colonial activists that had been displaced from British colonies as well as against locally marginalized and anglicized Irish protesters. There’s more than a past pattern of those tactics, actually, as across the UK and other EU countries anti-surveillance protesters took to smashing CCTV cameras (publicly placed video recorders) this very week.

german_dissident
(One German dissident dismantling a public surveillance camera in January, from here.)

On the distinct but related issue of the wave of UK riots two years ago, which were prompted in part in opposition to police brutality, Greenwald struck an odd tone. While he admitted that the riots were rooted in opposition to exploitation and “the system,” he likewise reduce them to being nothing more than “opportunistic criminality and inchoate rage“. Instead of attempting to sort through the diverse motivations for the riots, Greenwald essentially gave up, and missed out on reporting a connection between this larger backdrop of protest and resistance and the state systems he now takes so seriously.

As long as he’s reporting on the US’s possible involvement in detaining Miranda and likewise the US’s National Security Agency’s broad surveillance programs, why can’t he also mention Stop and Frisk, which as near as I can tell, he’s never covered? It’s also rather timely this week, given how New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has responded to the declaration of that policy as unconstitutional with calls for mass fingerprinting in poor, predominantly Black and Latin@ neighborhoods. Both that former policy and Bloomberg’s interest in replacing it with a similarly overpowered form of policing has gone chronically underreported and could do with a larger name like Greenwald’s throwing some attention its way.

The problem here, to repeat myself, isn’t his choice to cover the surveillance state and police overreach as it affects him personally, but his decision to primarily cover it then and only describe the system’s hostile actions as violence in that case. The contours of his reporting on this issue leave so much beneath the surface, unexplored.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When ‘feminists’ take up the masters’ tools…

TW: cissexism, sexism, suicide

In case you missed the quite heated discussion over, well, the validity of transgender identities in the UK in the past week, and want to understand what set it off better than simply staring at the Guardian’s unconvincing and poorly written apology, Jezebel’s Lindy West has a rather excellent summary of the events leading up to Julie Burchill’s opinion piece rant as well as some of the choicest quotes from it.

West begins with Suzanne Moore’s cissexist comment that women must deal with beauty standards purportedly matched only by “Brazilian transsexuals.” While breaking down the various ways this harms and devalues the lives and experiences of transgender women, her third point seemed particularly insightful, which noted,  “It is extremely othering and exclusionary to hold up trans women as a counterexample to ‘real’ women.”

Part of the horrifying nature of that process is that women themselves are already held up as the counterexample to “real” people, the men, so to be among not only those who are exiled from humanity to some extent, but also be rejected by your fellow women who don’t want to include you within their dehumanized ranks, is a terrible thing to have to face. Which might explain why so many transgender women, even comparatively successful ones, contemplate suicide.


(Lana Wachowski after speaking about her suicide attempt while accepting her Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign, from here.)

Of course, while it’s quite clear how transgender women are being discussed as if unreal in Moore’s and Burchill’s screeds,  it’s something that’s sometimes harder to see how women, both cisgender and transgender, are treated as distractions from what is real. But it’s an argument nearly as embedded in so many statements and actions as the invalidity assigned to trans people. It’s in the fact that killers only have gender if they’re female. It’s even buried in a valid point the Onion recently made about the ironclad focus on wealthy and famous Americans over the realities of those who are neither, which might not occur to you until I ask you to find a woman in the pictures we’re implicitly asked to care about more and a man mentioned in the statements we’re seemingly requested to care about less.

West wisely recognized that the way Burchill and Moore spoke about transgender women was “the kind of language that misogynist trolls use against [all women], to trivialize and derail and silence feminist discourse, every day” but in using it against transgender women, it was the same hostility but “coming from inside the house.” It’s the recreation of the same violence used against them, but redirected towards a specific group of those delegitimized alongside them that conveniently they don’t belong to.

In short, what these statements call into question are Burchill’s and Moore’s ultimate goal. Do they really want a more egalitarian society, or simply one that will stop its hostility against them? The personal may be political, but if your motivations end there, can you really claim to be intending to create equality?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,