Tag Archives: war

There shall be no next war

TW: nuclear war, colonialism

“[T]here shall be no next war” is what President Truman remarked 71 years ago to the day. He announced that publicly after having approved a second nuclear strike against Japan. He was motivated by leaked Japanese intelligence suggesting they were unlikely to agree to unconditional surrender in the nightmarish aftermath of Hiroshima on August 6th.

History makes a mockery of that sentiment, of course, as Truman used that speech to lay the groundwork for a US military presence around the world that has remained to this day. That is a presence that exacerbated Cold War tensions and ignited several proxy conflicts. It is a presence that today has morphed into the bulwark against terrorism and other inheritors of the not-so-long-lived forever war against communism. They are among the bases from which drones today take off and at which they land, having done their deadly work in unmanned skies.

In many ways, the US has seen nothing but war after Truman’s pronouncement.

800px-Nagasaki_1945_-_Before_and_after_(adjusted)(Nagasaki, Japan – before and after nuclear bombing.)

To attribute this militarization of the US to that single decision by Truman – to use nuclear weapons to force a total, complete, and unconditional surrender by Japan – is to inflate it unrealistically. But, still, it seems a notable stop along our way into the modern situation. This was the beginning of the presidency as a position that has a finger eternally perched on top of a button labeled “end the world.”

It was already pushed once with no adequate justification – 71 years ago today. Hiroshima, of course, only has paper thin excuses, of ignorance, of the heat of battle, of the seeping paranoia of a rising Soviet Union. But what happened 71 years ago today, in Nagasaki, followed the tearing down of all of those weak claims. The president by that time had the information key to understanding the pointless inhumanity of nuclear strikes, yet strike he did.

The risk the world faces in November is not our arsenal falling into unwise hands, but it returning to them. We have been here before, and tens of thousands of civilians died in one of the worst ways imaginable.

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The Afghanistan made by the US

In the wake of a recent attack on US service members in Afghanistan, the long ignored issue has come to the fore in national discussions. For the many in mainstream media who particularly highlight veterans’ and military issues, like Rachel Maddow, this was an opportunity to ask if we’re still an occupying presence in Afghanistan (technically, no; effectively, maybe).

Even in reporting focused beyond the experiences of US military, there’s a looming expectation. The attacks on not only the few US service members remaining in the country but also on religious and ethnic targets, namely the Hazara minority, are presented as the alternative to a larger US military presence. The implication is that they’re on the ends of a fulcrum, with US presence dampening the terrorism and related violence, which proliferates in our absence.

Another, more seldom presented, way of understanding the situation is that perhaps the recent attacks – against Hazara and US military – are themselves the result of the way that US became involved in the country. Far from opposites, they essentially encourage each other.

Long before the US’s presence there under the auspices of the War on Terror, the funding of counter-Soviet jihadists armed radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan to the teeth. Long hostile to Hazara and other ethnic groups who are predominantly Shia, this already threatened to tip the already militarized balance of ethnic power within the country against the Hazara and others. The Soviet invasion was, of course, a colonial nightmare, like most of the Soviet escapades through central Asia. This one, however, has reached even more nightmarish heights because of how another power, the US, perpetuated the internal conflicts.

Even as the Cold War melted away and new global struggles captured the US’s interest, Afghanistan remained a site of proxy war. A number of ethnic groups, including the Hazara to some extent, were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, the primary opponents to Taliban rule – the ultimate state-like incarnation of those same radical Sunni circles. Supported by many neighbors, primarily those further north and with similar ethnic compositions, this and other groups fighting against the Sunni supremacist and largely Pashtun-run Taliban were effectively off the US’s radar until Sunni supremacists hit here. Suddenly, those same largely Pashtun Sunni supremacists transformed from militants upsetting another empire to militants striking within the heart of ours.

With the overwhelmingly US-driven NATO presence then arriving in Afghanistan, you might expect the US’s alignments to change. Not so, as Pashtun politicians rode the wave of US-backed democratization into a new form of power. Even outside of positions explained by the formidable Pashtun voting bloc, they tended to rise to the top. Hamid Karzai, later the president of Afghanistan, rose to power first as an appointed interim leader at least to some extent condoned by the US military occupation.

The most notable exception to that trend was Mohammed Fahim – a prominent leader within the Northern Alliance and a non-Pashtun. His exceptional status is dampened somewhat when it’s pointed out that he was Tajik, not Hazara, and like many Tajiks, he was a Sunni Muslim, and at that one who studied Sunni Islamic law. What’s more, his role within the nominally moderate Karzai administration was to find as much common ground as possible with radical Sunnis and draw them back into non-violent politics. He died of natural causes just before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Beyond the political world as well, the part Pashtun Khaled Hosseini captured the US’s interest with The Kite Runner. While not fully Pashtun and quite vocally in favor of expanding the opportunities for Hazara and other ethnic minorities, his non-Pashtun ancestry is apparently Tajik, like Fahim. In his most prominent of several well-received stories, he painted a sympathetic picture of the Hazara as a uniquely constrained minority within Afghanistan, even as he at once embodied the greater attention paid by the US to the other groups within and from the country.

Perhaps most iconically however, there’s Sharbat Gula, better known the world over as simply “the Afghan girl”:

Sharbat_GulaSteve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” taken in December 1984.

She is also Pashtun, and like a large number of Pashtun people in the part of the world, even though not a Taliban supporter, she was sympathetic to their causes and was essentially open to their return. As she put it, quite accurately for many Sunni Pashtuns in all likelihood, under the Taliban “there was peace and order”.

That Pashtun-designed peace and order disintegrated with the US shifting from Cold War proxy support, to 1990s disinterest, to War on Terror occupation. The many modern militant groups currently threatening Hazara and US military members alike, are all committed to recreating some small slice of that in an era in which US drones can and regularly do coldly strike their villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It’s a rather indirect path from US intervention to a toxified Afghanistan, in which the political choices are often between Pashtun-dominated/Sunni supremacist rule and an anemic centrist government that regularly negotiates with that precise political bloc. That said, there are recurrent patterns here – about whom the US chooses to arm, to fund, to advance, and otherwise to support. Our relationship with the many different Pashtun communities in the world is one riddled with inconsistency, but that stands in sharp contrast to a monolithic disinterest towards all things Hazara, which clearly extends out into higher standards for other non-Pashtuns too.

There are other, more common ways of noting that the US presence isn’t necessarily a check against extremism. If nothing else, our military presence anywhere in the Islamic world serves as a reason to radicalize. Beyond that, however, there’s a very simple question of which people in Afghanistan have been the recipients of our resources.

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The featured image for this article is an ethnographic map of Afghanistan, from here.

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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.

4916719273_39b6a2eb4e_o.jpg
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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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.

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Stuff Happens

Trigger warning: gun violence, war, terrorism, islamophobia

By now, Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign has seemingly hit a stumbling block that while not necessarily disqualifying in the Republican Primary, is likely to capsize him in the general 2016 election if he becomes the Republican nominee. If you’re unaware, when asked for his thoughts on the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, he shrugged off the loss of life, saying, “Stuff happens.

At the risk of sounding as oblivious to the recent pain as him, he is technically right. Miseries happen. Tragedies happen. Violent events happen. The issue here though isn’t that though, it’s what he meant by saying that. “Stuff happens” is what people say not to recognize pain and problems but to dismiss them. His implicit argument is that nothing can be done about these types of mass shooting incidents, which happen in this country at nearly a rate of once a day. His calculated political decision not to care about this specific form of violence is disguised by the powerlessness that “stuff happens” implies. He’s making a choice not to care, and presenting it as all he can do.

That’s not how he himself has spoken in the Republican Primary on all forms of violence.

“I don’t know if you remember, Donald- Do you remember the rubble?”

Jeb Bush is entirely capable of caring about the loss of life and the experience of violence – and not just in a standard Republican tone in a hypocritical call for new restrictions on abortion. He can see events of extreme, pseudo-militaristic violence, and say this is unacceptable and demands an organized, society-wide response. What he does is chooses which tragedies speak to him in that way, an indirect way of selecting the type of society he thinks we should live in.

A tragedy that justifies invasions and colonialism-echoing occupations in majority Muslim countries calls for remembering, for recognizing, for sacralizing to achieve those ends. A tragedy like a shooting by an able-bodied, able-minded, straight, cisgender, White man within the US has no parallel usefulness to Jeb Bush within the Republican Primary. If anything, it’s a liability in a worldview that depends on finding the origins of violence (and hence, reasons to strike back) as coming from other groups and striking with different means. What “stuff happens” underscores is not just a callousness to those affected by this most recent incident of gun violence or one of the scores of similar tragedies in these recent years, but a dehumanizing way of approaching any such loss of life, whether disregarded as yet another lamentable thing in the world or hallowed.

“Stuff happens” out of the mouth of Jeb Bush or anyone else who has spoken about 9/11 and other tragedies in such mournful terms makes clear that the speaker asks themselves a question after every catastrophe: what can I gain from this? Their sorrow is not a fully authentic emotional response, but a carefully chosen one, selected because of what it could bring about in the world.

Credit to the featured image goes to here.

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We can walk away from the table

Trigger Warning: war, sanctions, imperialism, medical violence

It’s easy to dismiss the rejection of the new accords between Iran and the US as a sort of simplistic radicalism. Actually, with people like former congressional representative Michele Bachmann, saying that these terrible deals are ushering in the end times but are also great because its, again, ushering in the end times, it’s difficult not to conclude that it’s a mix of strange eschatology and hypernationalism that has led to members of both nations to speak out against the deal.

To be fair, that isn’t an entirely unrealistic depiction of the case in Iran, where the government has “suspended” one newspaper for stating that Iran’s negotiators gave away too much ground in this deal. Support for the deal, which would end the international sanctions which have devastated Iran’s economy and restricted access to critical medical supplies and other necessities, is clearly something that many people are willing to show. The dangers and difficulties to be faced by the majority of Iranians if the deal doesn’t go through – the threat of invasion, of war, of economic hardships – are visible, known, and actually a coercive factor in pushing all but the most fiercely militaristic into supporting the deal.

That isn’t the lived experience for most residents of the United States, however. Involvement in some sort of war in broader Middle East and southern Central Asia has been on-going, a part of American life for more than a decade now. But for all but the small minority of people in the US military, it’s a distant reality. War is something that happens somewhere else to someone else. The tiny fraction of the population engaged directly in the conflict is only shrinking further, for that matter, as new military policies and practices replace ground troops with (increasingly automated) drones. There are of course the people who under those conditions are rather jingoistic, and in a Bachmann-esque manner call for an apocalyptic war they won’t have to fight.

iranian protest favor of dealAn Iranian family supportive of the deal hold up a sign welcoming the end of sanctions which reads “Hello, World!” From here.

But there are also numerous “moderates” for whom a rejection of the deal is more than not political toxic, at times politically viable and even useful. Much has been made of Senator (D-NY) Chuck Schumer’s planned rejection of the deal. He was joined yesterday by Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Neither of those Senators are particularly known for voting with the more reflexively militaristic Republicans, and yet, they have found themselves on that side of the vote on this. The processes influencing that are multiple and complex, but fundamentally, there is the reality that the US and Iran come to the negotiating table unequally. We have the ability to reject the deal in a way that they do not. We cannot overlook and equate our critics of negotiation with theirs, because we aren’t them and we don’t have a stake in this the way they do.

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Haunted by history

Trigger Warning: nuclear warfare, racism, genocide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everything starts to come unglued

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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A run down of the wars

TW: Korean War, Philippine-Malaysian tensions, Argentinian “Dirty War”, drone strikes

War was all over the news today, let’s just take a quick assessment of it all.

  • Just before joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, North Korea has sent several signals suggesting that they might be interested in reengaging the South in another armed conflict. The last time everyone considered that they were likely to do so (in 2010) more than a few people cited analysis from 2005 (again, when everyone expected something to happen) that suggested huge casualties would be likely if the war did reignite. Buried under all the paranoia is an actually important point: if the war, which technically has only ceased rather than ended, started again in earnest, hundreds of thousands are likely to die. That, among other pieces of evidence, does point towards this being yet another bluff on the part of the North Korea leadership. Unfortunately, there seem to be diminishing returns as North Korea has to increasingly concern China, South Korea, and the US in order to not be easily labeled as only being aggressive to jockey for aid.
  • Military conflicts between East Malaysians and militarized Filipin@ groups in the Sabah province have gotten the Philippine state involved now as unaffiliated Filipin@ individuals have been targeted by the Malaysian police. Ironically, exacerbating the land conflict wasn’t the intention of the Sulu Sultanate, the Filipin@ group in question, who simply wanted the regular allowance paid by the Malaysian government for having displaced their government to be raised. As tensions have worsened, that actually seems to be becoming a less likely outcome.
  • With the selection of the Archbishop of Argentina to hold papal office, many old wounds about the “Dirty War” in Argentina have been reopened. Was Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) among the high-ranking Catholics that sought to soften the blow of the military regime by keeping pregnant political prisoners alive, only to kill them after they gave birth? Is his sense of fidelity to Christian principles so thin?

What’s striking is how many of the instigators (or alleged accessory in Pope Francis’ case) were loath to actually initiate or perpetuate conflicts. They didn’t seem to be interested in killing or causing the death of anyone, but their political interests allowed them to risk that, or even cause or participate in it to maintain an unsustainable class division within North Korea, to lobby for greater dispensation from the Malaysian government, and to protect some perceived victims in the midst of state-sponsored killings.


(A Pakistani woman protesting the use of drones in 2011, from here.)

I think that’s an important thing to meditate on, when examining your own beliefs. Would they let you get to the same place as Kim Il-Sung, the Sultanate of Sulu, or Pope Francis?

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