Wednesday, 27 August 2014

De Blasio-cops battle good for New York

A major police union called for a boycott of New York City yesterday as long as it doesn’t get its way. The Sergeants Benevolent Association told the Democratic Party leadership NOT to consider New York for its next convention, arguing that the city is too dangerous now due to the new mayor’s friendship with Al Sharpton.

The cop union is pissed off at the mild attempts by their ostensible boss, the mayor, to stop them from beating and killing people. So they took out full-page ads in newspapers to drum up demagogic support for their enforcement of the modern Jim Crow code of black-male control.

It’s pretty amazing that these top cops insist upon remaining a free-lance occupying force exempt from following the rules they impose on the rest of us and will even resort to open sabotage to protect their privileges. They are taking a lesson from their Republican friends in Congress who are happy to wreck the chances for an American economic recovery as long as that outcome damages Obama and benefits themselves.

The Staten Island chokehold case hasn’t inhibited the city’s cop leaders in the least—on the contrary, they’re even more determined to stop any pursuit of justice over that on-screen assassination of a non-violent detainee. To his credit, De Blasio has come out swinging, and there is now a chance that the conflict will bubble over into the real confrontation that the city sorely needs.

There must be plenty of rank-and-file cops who don’t feel the same way about the new mayor and the need to stop the most violent cops from continuing to abuse citizens. But they live within a strict hierarchy and know better than to challenge the white guys who can make their lives miserable.

If De Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton want to avoid much nastier violence, including inflamed racial sentiments that already are beginning to emerge, they will have to face down these cop union jugheads and make their intransigence costly to the uniformed services. Contract negotiations are coming up, giving De Blasio an excellent tool for demanding a modicum of cooperation from the cops as he has dispatched other union demands promptly and generously.

The sergeants and patrolmen’s association leadership probably think the city’s white residents will back them up no matter what, and they’re probably right. But Caucasian New Yorkers are a minority, and De Blasio doesn’t have to delight them to get his work done.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

When does it qualify as a "world" war?

Just as I was musing to myself publicly about things spinning out of control planet-wide, we have these new developments:

Planes from the United Arab Emirates, using Egyptian air bases, bombed Libya where Islamist militias seized control of the country’s main airport. You don’t have to know where to locate all these countries on a map to grasp that the entire region seems on the verge of a massive war of everyone against everyone else. And we thought the Iraqi adventure was a debacle—what if that was merely chapter one?

An Israeli commentator, Naava Mashiah, featured on the always astute Informed Comment blog, had this to say about the atmosphere:

But I would like to point out that this time, it is different. This time there is a different sense in the air. A point of no return has been crossed. . . . I have been witness to many of my Israeli compatriots seeking to issue a second passport, a European passport. Some of their parents or grandparents originally hailed from Europe, and people are taking the time to go to the various embassies, prove their family roots, and wait for a second passport to arrive in the post—just in case. Perhaps they will need it if the ‘situation’ deteriorates and they must search for a safe haven in Europe.
Ironically, she adds, Jewish Europeans fleeing the sharp rise in anti-Semitic sentiments are heading out in the opposite direction.

As usual, Iraq leads the way with tales of relentless horror. Women in the newly minted Islamic State’s capital of Mosul are now being forced to wear the full-body niqab. A well-known obstetrician, Dr. Ghada Shafiq, who objected that female doctors could not work in the bulky costume, was kidnapped leaving her hospital and murdered.

Meanwhile, the unspeakable Assad regime in Syria has offered to join forces with the West against the Islamist Frankenstein that has sprung up where George Bush so conveniently prepared the ground for them. Given the utter cynicism of our leadership, such an alliance is not hard to imagine (though impossible to stomach). It’s hard to know which of the two sides most deserves our contempt: serial killer desert militias who slaughter prisoners based on their ethnicity or one of the world’s most truly execrable regimes run by the Assad family’s Gestapo.

That’s a lot of bad news to keep up with even as the Greenland glacier prepares to sheer off into the rapidly warming seas. It’s enough to make one yearn for one’s 90s—anything not to see how this movie ends.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Helpless in Iraq

Life is full of contradictions, but neomarxist dialectitians tell us that this is not a mere irony but an aspect of reality. So it should not surprise us at all that the most powerful nation on earth seems increasingly led around blindly by forces far beyond its control. Or that those persons purportedly at the center of world dominion rarely exercise initiative and mostly react ad hoc to the events of the day. It is as if a mighty king’s options for dinner were at the mercy of his chef.

Obama is probably mightier than most of the kings of history, and he demonstrates his vast influence by playing golf. (Louis XVI, another elitist liberal confused by history, might have delighted in the game, played on lovely swards of greenery.) Obama has played 186 rounds of golf during his presidency to date, more than two per month. I don’t thinks it matters as long as he gets his work done, but the symbolism is less that of indifference to human suffering than incapacity to do anything about it. It was probably insensitive of him to golf twice after the recent beheading of the free-lancer though I see no particular reason to criticize him more for insensitivity to the gruesome on-air death of an American journalist than for the gruesome off-camera deaths of 72 Iraqis murdered yesterday in a Sunni mosque.

Iraq is the ne plus ultra of our daily witness to helplessness: armed men bristling with every sort of advanced weaponry who cannot assert their control. They can inflict damage and suffering, but they cannot organize society to their design. The latest explanation is that the recently departed and unlamented Iraqi president, Nouri al-Maliki, was a Shiite sectarian who drove the Sunni minority into the secessionist arms of ISIS. The new, improved Shiite president was supposed to fix all that, but then the mosque murders took place. Oops.

This commentator reminds us that the latest madmen we are now supposed to view with alarm are the ideological descendants of the same guys armed and empowered decades ago by the CIA to fight the Russians. Patrick Cockburn [see his new book, above] goes further back to point out that it is really the Saudi connection that gave such strength to the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic jihad sects, starting with the Saudi millionaire bin Laden. The Saudi fingerprint was all over 9/11, but how many Americans even know the nationality of the great majority of the twin tower hijackers?

Cockburn explains that the U.S. and its European allies have been very consistent in their inconsistency, trying to bake themselves a nice jihadist cake and avoid the resulting ISIS birthday party, trying to help the Iraqis crush the Sunni uprising in Tikrit while encouraging the same forces to overthrow Assad in Syria. He writes:

Iraqi politicians have been telling me for the last two years that foreign backing for the Sunni revolt in Syria would inevitably destabilize their country as well. This has now happened. By continuing these contradictory policies in two countries, the U.S. has ensured that ISIS can reinforce its fighters in Iraq from Syria and vice versa. So far, Washington has been successful in escaping blame for the rise of ISIS by putting all the blame on the Iraqi government. In fact, it has created a situation in which ISIS can survive and may well flourish.

Cockburn’s analysis is quite simple: the war on terror has failed because the Americans were unwilling to go to the source of the jihadist support: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The U.S. did not do so because these countries were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated, and on occasion purchased, influential members of the American political establishment. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a military with close links to the Pentagon.

It’s not hard to imagine the multiple competing pressures on people like, say, Barack Obama or George W. Bush if they were to do anything to undermine these lucrative relationships with the jihadi enablers. So we will hear a lot about frightful terrorists and threats to the nation, but the events that will unfold have taken on a life of their own.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

No, I will not be pouring ice water on my head

What an old fart I am! I can hear the Facebook criticism now: Hey, show a little solidarity with the ailing and infirm! How hard could it be to film yourself hilariously grimacing in pain and post it to YouTube?

Blow me.

Every so often, someone comes along with a bright idea like the ice bucket challenge to coerce guilt-ridden contributions of time, attention or cash to an allegedly worthy cause. Give a “like” to this darling baby with brain cancer! Can I talk to you about endangered species [this from a grinning teen with a clipboard]?

I remember when supermarkets in Chile started extorting change from shoppers by asking if we wouldn’t like to “donate” the coins due us to X charity—sometimes including the anti-abortion leagues. That bad habit quickly moved to the U.S. where Staples kindly thought we should give an extra dollar of our money (not theirs, of course) to some nice-sounding mission they’d cooked up.

It wasn’t really about the charity, of course, but to make you think that Staples was such a good corporate citizen that they really almost didn’t care about making a profit at all.

As a toiler in the vineyards of medical research, I certainly think people studying Lou Gehrig’s disease should get all the money they can reasonably spend. Our country’s elected leaders could easily provide it to them given that the U.S. now produces more wealth than any society in the history of humankind. We found a couple trillion to flush down the Iraq toilet easily enough.

Nor would I object to Barack Obama getting a bucket of cold water on his head if I thought it would rearrange his priorities.

But all these feel-good campaigns to dislodge cash from the public for medical causes is a big, fat distraction that does more harm than good. We’re not short of resources; we’re short of people power.

If our system weren’t in the hands of a corrupt class of snakes masquerading in human form, we would be channeling money and scientific expertise into disease-curing research already.

You won’t see the guys at Lockheed or Raytheon or the cops in Ferguson resorting to gimmicks like the viral ice bucket. They get their cash from the source—Uncle Sam’s pocket. That’s why people like Bush II can join in the public bathing fun.

I pass.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What Israel won--and lost

The latest London Review of Books has a sober and sobering article summarizing the aftermath of the Gaza debacle. It is dated August 1, so there are subsequent developments it does not touch upon. But the reflective, Europe-based view is fascinating both for the tone and the details completely hidden from our awareness—whether by design or mere ignorance matters little. It provides a bracing contrast to the debate here.

Nathan Thrall writes first that the terms of the prior settlement between Israel and Hamas that ended the 2012 violence were never honored nor implemented:

It stipulated that all Palestinian factions in Gaza would stop hostilities against Israel, that Israel would end attacks against Gaza by land, sea and air – including the ‘targeting of individuals’ (assassinations, typically by drone-fired missile) – and that the closure of Gaza would essentially end as a result of Israel’s ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas’. An additional clause noted that ‘other matters as may be requested shall be addressed,’ a reference to private commitments by Egypt and the US to help thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza, though Hamas has denied this interpretation of the clause.

Thrall then notes that very little violence followed, indicating that a peaceful settlement, a short-term one at least, was possible had there been the desire for one.

During the three months that followed the ceasefire, Shin Bet recorded only a single attack: two mortar shells fired from Gaza in December 2012. Israeli officials were impressed.

Next question: who then provoked the latest round of slaughter:

But [the Israelis] convinced themselves that the quiet on Gaza’s border was primarily the result of Israeli deterrence and Palestinian self-interest. Israel therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza’s waters.

The end of the closure never came. Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones – agricultural lands that Gazan farmers couldn’t enter without being fired on – were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the idea of further Israel-Hamas talks, via third parties, also never went anywhere:

[Negotiations were] repeatedly delayed, at first because [the Israeli side] wanted to see whether Hamas would stick to its side of the deal, then because Netanyahu couldn’t afford to make further concessions to Hamas in the weeks leading up to the January 2013 elections, and then because a new Israeli coalition was being formed and needed time to settle in. The talks never took place.

Anyone following the farcical Kerry talks or the many previous ‘negotiations’ of recent decades will recognize this pattern of excuse-making.

There is a lot more detail in the article, including key facts about how life in the Gaza ghetto was made increasingly desperate. To cite just one example:

Shortages of fuel led to queues stretching several blocks at petrol stations, and fights broke out at the pumps. Garbage piled in the streets because the government couldn’t afford fuel for refuse lorries. In December sanitation plants shut down and sewage flowed through the streets. The water crisis worsened: more than 90 per cent of Gaza’s aquifer was now contaminated.

To alleviate the situation, Hamas agreed to long-standing Western demands: non-violence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel. Then Hamas acceded to the demands of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, all to get some relief from the crushing conditions of the trapped Gazans. The result was . . . nada:

The most basic conditions of the deal – payment of the government employees who run Gaza and an opening of the crossing with Egypt – were not fulfilled. For years Gazans had been told that the cause of their immiseration was Hamas rule. Now it was over, their conditions only got worse.

All it took was the spark of a new incident, provided by the murder of the three yeshiva students on June 12, followed by the kidnapping and immolation of a Palestinian teen. As in Ferguson, Missouri, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether those in charge want a violent explosion to occur or just do everything in their power to guarantee that result.

Thrall says Hamas now has three new demands for a semi-permanent truce, all based on prior agreements that they want Israel to honor: the Shalit prisoner exchange accord, including the release of some 50 re-arrested former Hamas prisoners; the November 2012 ceasefire, which calls for an end to Gaza’s closure; and the April 2014 agreement to pay Gaza salaries and open up the border crossings to much needed construction materials.

Thrall also makes a startling final conclusion: that Israeli officials across the political spectrum ‘have begun to admit privately that the previous policy towards Gaza was a mistake’.

All parties involved in mediating a ceasefire envision postwar arrangements that effectively strengthen the new Palestinian government and its role in Gaza – and by extension Gaza itself. . . . Hamas knows it can’t defeat the Israeli military, but the Gaza war holds out the possibility of a distant but no less important prize: stirring up the West Bank, and undermining the Ramallah leadership and the programme of perpetual negotiation, accommodation and US dependency that it stands for. For many Palestinians, Hamas has once again proved the comparative effectiveness of militancy. . . . Since the fighting in Gaza began this summer, Israel has not announced a single new settlement and has expressed willingness to make certain concessions to Palestinian demands – achievements the Ramallah leadership has not been able to match in years of negotiations.

Finally, despite the awful carnage, it is not clear that Israel has won the military triumph it anticipated:

During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel went far deeper into Gaza and lost only ten soldiers, four of them to friendly fire; today Israeli ground forces have lost more than sixty soldiers. Losses among Hamas militants so far appear to be manageable. For the first time in decades, Israel is defending itself against an army that has penetrated the 1967 borders, by means of tunnels and naval incursions. Hamas rockets produced in Gaza can now reach all of Israel’s largest cities, including Haifa, and it has rocket-equipped drones. It was able to shut down Israel’s main airport for two days. Israelis who live near Gaza have left their homes and are scared to go back since the IDF says that there are probably still tunnels it doesn’t know about. Rockets from Gaza kept Israelis returning to shelters day after day, demonstrating the IDF’s inability to deal with the threat. The war is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars.

Given the unfavorable outcome, it seems Israel can react in one of two ways: seek indirect negotiations and allow Gaza some breathing room essentially on the same terms that were already available before the latest round of bloodshed. That would calm Israel’s allies in the West and slow down the PR debacle that is undermining the zionist image worldwide and strengthening the divest and boycott movement.

Another approach is for Israel to plan for a far more comprehensive assault to destroy Hamas’s new military prowess. We should never assume such an act is unthinkable given the rampant madness—of a chillingly racist nature—now manifest in Israeli society. If 2,000 people, mostly civilians, can be killed today with such arrogance and unapologetic pride, why not 200,000 tomorrow?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

We need to re-racialize the conversation about policing

Yes, Ferguson is about race

The Daily News here has been on a tear over police abuses, hitting the Staten Island chokehold case hard. It has uncovered and highlighted the long history of repeated complaints about excessive force stemming from that particular precinct and editorialized in blistering terms (this week adding the Ferguson case, which it called a “national disgrace”). Its widely read columnist Mike Lupica has added an important voice insisting on deep reform. This campaign is, I believe, highly significant because the paper sits somewhere in the middle of the city’s political culture, between the stately, stuffy Times and the mammonites at the Murdochian Post.

But there’s an odd twist to the Daily News’s take on these repeated killings of black men: the paper insists they’re not about race. Cops like those who caused Eric Garner’s death are bad apples, says Lupica, violent loose cannon who must be reined in, disciplined, charged, prosecuted, fired. The NYPD is allowing rogue cops to get away with, yes, murder, says the DN, and it’s got to stop.

All this is welcome, and it reflects a long overdue recognition that letting repeated offender cops off the hook again and again is dangerous, not just to their next potential victims but to social peace and the city itself. New York has worked very hard to get its diverse population back on track after violent incidents in past decades embittered each ethnic group in turn, made people suspicious of each other, polarized and racialized the city’s politics, and scared off tourists. It wasn’t that long ago that New York was a laughingstock, a punching bag for Middle America, that place where no sane person would risk his skin to visit.

Why then is it so important to de-racialize the incidents? Why does Lupica insist that since black and/or Latino officers were involved in the Garner chokehold case, it couldn’t be about Garner’s ethnicity? (By the way, there were plenty of black cops in apartheid South Africa—that means nothing.) Where does this insistence on seeing the cases, despite their consistency in terms of who is doing the shooting and who ends up shot, from a faux perspective of color-blindness?

I believe that at least part of the answer is that to recognize that we are facing the lingering effects of the slave system is too painful for most Americans. While everyone knows that Africans arrived to these shores as chattel slaves chained together in the hulls of boats, those are supposed to be the bad old days that we left behind long ago. Even the Jim Crow segregation that took the place of slavery after Reconstruction and only ended 50 years ago is now supposed to be an historic relic, a crazy time when people lived with bizarre rules based on the color line, separate drinking fountains, exclusion from public eateries, a whole race-infused ideology of pollution and difference. But now we are to suppose that that’s all over and done with.

If we were taught as schoolchildren the grim details of how slavery worked, we might be better able to see through that facile dismissal and perceive the workings of the past in our present. The few narratives written by American freedmen about their experience of captivity are not well known—that’s a great loss. At best, we might get a few pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or some inspiring excerpts by Frederick Douglass—although neither of these were part of my all-white school’s curriculum. But there was no exposure to the hair-raising and devastating autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, Charles Bell, William Wells Brown, or Olaudah Equiano, any one of which is like getting a Ph.D. in American history. Solomon Northrup’s story has just now become widely known through the hit film, 12 Years a Slave, for the first time since it was published in 1853.

Slaves were kept in line through a pervasive, relentless and complex system of social control. When on errands away from their place of bondage, they would be stopped repeatedly by any white man and compelled to explain themselves, to prove they were on their masters’ business. Even during their so-called ‘free’ time, a slave might be beaten for visiting other slaves without first obtaining permission. Torture was routinely applied for misbehavior, and the most effective techniques for inflicting disciplinary pain were highly developed and shared among slaveholders (a disturbing aspect of the recent debate about the practice, which erroneously assumes that torture is somehow un-American and a new phenomenon).

Without the entire system of control, the system could not work because slaves rebelled against the misery of their lives and yearned for their freedom, just as we say all men and women do when oppressed—and remind ourselves once a year on July 4th. Without constant spying on slave movements (hello NSA), backed up by heavy policing, slaves would have worked less, run off more, and subverted the slave economy at every opportunity. Even with the repressive tactics, slaves did often resist and suffered extreme consequences when caught out.

There is an underlying racialism lurking beneath the Ferguson debacle, the Garner chokehold, Trayvon Martin’s death, and the many cases we never hear about. White America has not made peace with the economic and moral crimes that were fundamental to the country’s early life and vast later prosperity. That’s why it’s easy for complacent white police officers everywhere to reenact the color line in their daily interactions and not have a clue where their own behavior comes from.

So it’s no good to try to individualize the abuses as mere ‘police brutality’ or individual cop pathology although the repeat perpetrators often linked to the incidents may be extreme cases. We are dealing with a legacy of social control with precise roots, which, like any pathology, thrives in secretive silence.

Obama’s role is a curious one, given that as a dark-skinned president the entire country looks to him for insight. He recognizes the obvious fact that a younger version of himself would not be immune to dying in a Trayvon Martin-type incident. But his rise to prominence began with a 2004 speech in which he appealed to the country to move ‘beyond’ racial differences and be united as Americans. Whites love that because they prefer to think of themselves and their country as post-racial. But one doesn’t have to read far into the comments posted on news stories about Trayvon, Garner or Mike Brown to know that that is still an illusion wrapped in dewy ignorance.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Garner case is moment of truth for De Blasio / Bradley

Mayor De Blasio’s handling of the Staten Island chokehold case that led to the death of Eric Garner has been a bit hamhanded, but it reflects his inexperience at high-profile leadership and the shortcomings of his communications team. Underneath is an apparent desire on the part of the mayor to keep everyone happy. But he may soon find out that on issues of white cops causing the death of black males, that may not be possible.

Up to now, the cops consistently have got their way, avoided sanction for shocking behavior (Bell, Graham, to name the most egregious) and gone back to insisting that nothing is wrong with the current system. If De Blasio wants things to work differently, he’s going to have to piss them off and live with the consequences.

De Blasio and his new/returned police commissioner Bradley handled the first news of the Garner incident well: they bowed to the inevitable need for an ‘investigation’ but escalated the stakes subtly by recognizing the obvious illicit chokehold that was on every TV channel regularly for the whole city to see.

But De Blasio goofed badly by inviting Al Sharpton to a meeting without telling him that it was to be a public love-fest with TV cameras rolling. Sharpton, legitimately, refused to be part of a public game of pattycakes before the Garner case had gone anywhere.

If the police chief and the mayor want community dialogue and understanding, they will have to rein in rogue cops and stop them from breaking the department’s own rules against chokeholds and other rampant abuses—THEN call for a let’s-all-get-along meeting.

Sharpton nailed them both when he said that retraining 35,000 cops yet again on what they’re supposed to do and not do is meaningless when nobody gets punished for ignoring the guidelines, even when they end up killing a guy. Criminal charges, he suggested, would be a much better didactic strategy.

This is just as true in policing as it is in banking. As the financial blogs have been insisting since the 2008 collapse, politicians can say whatever they want, promise the sky and pass a raft of laws. But when no banker goes to jail for fraud, the message remains, Keep doing it; your company’s shareholders will pay the fines, and you’ll walk away with the ill-gotten gains.

Meanwhile, there was a story this week that the increasingly laughable Citizen’s Complaint Review Board has received over a thousand complaints about the use of chokeholds by the NYPD. The whole idea of taking a complaint through ‘proper’ channels is therefore a joke. The cases take forever to move through the CCRB system, and its chairman insists that the panel’s job is to improve police-community relations, i.e., ask the officers to play nice next time.

That’s exactly what Sharpton refused to do, and De Blasio shouldn’t be asking him to in the first place. Instead, Sharpton gave him and Bradley both the tongue-lashing that they both deserved, and the jughead faction in the NYPD went nuts.

De Blasio is facing his first big moment of truth on this one. Sometimes political leadership to bring about change means confrontation, not just public relations. He and Bradley will have to make it clear that certain behavior by cops will not be tolerated whether the thuggish PBA head Patrick Lynch likes it or not. Cops will need to know that violent takedowns of non-resisting suspects, especially including the black males they consistently target, will result in unpleasant consequences up to and including criminal prosecution.

The DAs are going to hate it (they want cop BFFs to help them win cases and advance their careers), and the rabid Murdochian tabloid will have a shitfit. But the Daily News is signaling support for a tough line on uniformed bullies in recognition that the city cannot afford another round of Crown Heights-type racial strife. We are just a couple of incidents away from an explosion that, once it occurs, will take a decade to repair.

Lynch and the cops-do-no-wrong faction can burst a carotid all they want, but they’re on the defensive on the Garner case, and the public is with the mayor. It won’t last forever, though. The mayor has the cards he needs; it’s time to play them.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

NYPD union chiefs deny chokehold death

Here's the line-up of the guys who lead the police union called the Patrolman's Benevolent Association. Pretty inspiring sight, no? in a city that is over half non-white.

This is the crew defending their "fellow" officers that we're supposed to believe is not a race-based occupying force. Simply note the color scheme in the above photo. Hello? Whatever the Daily News says about color-blindness in its (very welcome) campaign against police abuses, it is simply not true that the existence of a few Hispanic and black cops on the beat means that racism is dead. This picture is worth a half million words by way of explaining how things really work here. If their abuses don't stop, something is going to spark a major shitstorm one of these days, and these mooks will be the first to celebrate and say, See? We have to crack down.

It's our local version of the Israeli approach to coexistence.

Monday, 4 August 2014

August 4, 1914-August 4, 2014

Today marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, often described by historians as the beginning of the “short century” lasting until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. The “short” 20th followed the “long” 19th century, usually measured from the French Revolution of 1789 to include the entire 1800s right up to 1914.

Pretty much everyone taking note of this anniversary has made reference to certain eerie parallels that, if we were not an immovably insouciant race, would make us rush to reinstitute the custom of burnt offerings to the gods. Here’s a list.

The first and most obvious hint of 1914-redux is the shooting war in the Ukraine accompanied by attempts to redraw the boundaries of Europe and resurgent nationalism everywhere you look. It’s not all that far from Serbia where the fireworks began a century ago although the two countries do not share a border.

As in the run-up to WW One, rival power blocs are maneuvering to gain advantage, undermine the enemy allies and bully the weaker countries. Each minor player has powerful friends, and everyone seems to think they can push the situation further, provoke retaliations, pump up chauvinistic anger, and spread around deadly weapons while keeping things from spinning out of control. The Hapsburg emperors thought that, too. The U.S. insistence on making things as hostile and volatile as possible is perhaps best reflected in Hillary Clinton’s post-Crimean annexation insistence that Vlad Putin is sort of like Adolf Hitler—obviously calculated to provoke, infuriate and make negotiations impossible.

If the “short century” was a continuum leading through the first war through the temporary peace and straight into the second, then there’s another apt parallel with the disastrous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act, which aggravated the Depression by raising tariffs just when choking off world trade was the last thing anyone needed. Today, we have the austerity priests ruling Europe and most of the U.S., administering the holy sacrament of mass misery to purify half the continent’s youth through bracing doses of idleness and penury. Not surprisingly, many of them are attracted to ultra-nationalist and neonazi movements—how about that! What could go wrong?

In the pre-WWII period, a vicious war was underway in China as the Japanese fascists drove into Manchuria and famously slaughtered tens of thousands at Nanking. We have an arguably similar ongoing debacle in Iraq, provoked by the Bush-Cheney criminal clique and now completely out of their or anyone’s control.

Lawrence Weschler suggests in Truthdig that even the appalling events in Gaza could be connected to unfinished business of the last war in the same way that Versailles Treaty to end war no. 1 left the European continent no real settlement and did much to lead it back to war no. 2.

Few even then though could have predicted just how unprecedentedly horrendous the resultant Nazi German regime would prove, or how calamitous for Europe’s Jews. And there is little doubt that following the Second World War, the case had become well nigh irrefutable that the surviving Jewish remnant indeed finally did deserve a state of its own. But—and here is the crux of the matter, at least in terms of how history thereafter would play out—why not the state of Bavaria, for example, or the Ruhr Valley, or Vienna and its surrounds? All sorts of massive movements and relocations of population were taking place in the years immediately after the war. Wouldn’t a more just settlement of Jewish claims have taken territory from those who had inflicted the most horrific suffering and violence upon them, and who would as a result have had the least justifiable cause for complaint?
The fact of the matter is that Europe—all of Europe—had no appetite for such an outcome. Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was still rampant in the higher counsels of governance across the continent (as it had been, for that matter, throughout the war in the relevant reaches of FDR’s State Department). Far easier to foist the problem onto the Arabs of Palestine. . . .

The point I am trying to make here is that the settlement forced upon the local Arabs of Palestine in the years following the end of the Second World War was in many ways every bit as blatantly unjust and corrosive as that forced upon the Germans at the end of the First World War. . . . And, more to the point, every bit as fraught with ongoing consequence.

European governments might have been shocked at the Nazi crimes, but they did little to resolve the issue of preserving European Jewish life and culture for the survivors of the Shoah. Instead, they pushed the trauma onto the shoulders of the Arabs of Palestine and have had to live with the results ever since. As have we.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

What will be the unintended consequences of Gaza II?

If the second Gaza “lawnmowing” now winds down, it will be time to take stock and see what has changed in that nightmarish landscape.

The history of the establishment of Israel and all the wars and conflicts that have taken place since looks from one perspective to be an unending lesson in the law of unintended consequences. Back in the 1940s, there were plenty of idealist zionists who thought the country would be a socialistic experiment based on the noblest strains of Jewish traditions of justice.

Military exemptions and economic support for a few Torah scholars to preserve Jewish traditions were never meant to create a permanent bloc of religious zealots and an expanding demographic that threatens to overwhelm its secular counterparts.

The 1967 war was not originally planned as an irredentist wet-dream. But it became a permanent occupation of conquered territories and created an even more extreme, religio-nationalist settler movement dominated by orthodox klansmen bent on terrorizing the non-Jewish residents.

And so on endlessly. What will be the unhappy results this time? Probably the divest and boycott movement will grow considerably as evidenced by the refusal of Irish shops, English supermarkets and other entities throughout Europe to stock illegal, settler-produced goods. Given the close ties between the settler economy and Israel proper, it’s only a matter of time until “Made in Israel” becomes a liability. Zionist voices will howl, but they should be glad instead given the intent of moral suasion behind such a campaign, which was so effective in pushing South Africa to a peaceful settlement.

At the other extreme, anti-Semitic attacks are likely to increase, especially in Europe, although whether this is really an ‘unintended’ consequence is debatable. Every time it looks as though Jews can never live in peace anywhere on earth, the raison d’├ętre of the Jewish state is strengthened. Enemies of zionist aggression must always be enemies of anti-Semitic acts and sentiments, but this is going to be too subtle a distinction for many. The Israelis insistence that Israel = Judaism and that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by definition will only exacerbate this tendency.

Israel’s diplomatic isolation has deepened in hitherto unknown ways. The Latin American reaction to the latest slaughter—four withdrawn ambassadors and very harsh statements from several presidents—may be only temporary. But popular sentiments in Latin America are quite clear. This is an intangible effect and thus hard to gauge, but the childish reaction of Israeli leaders (making fun of Brazil’s loss in the World Cup? Really?) reflects self-indulgence rather than sober calculation.

Netanyahu’s open mockery of the leadership of his principal ally is similarly imprudent. It is kind of funny to see the reality of Israel’s vast dominance over Washington displayed so starkly. Humiliation of Barack Obama is almost too easy as, like a chronically battered spouse, he reacts to attack with paralysis and hopes for reconciliation. But the rest of the U.S. military and security state cannot be pleased at being wagged by the tail. And it is worth asking how long the American public will be satisfied to accept this unequal (and costly) marriage. Israel’s behavior is based on the relationship lasting forever, but divorce lawyers make millions betting against those vows.

Finally, there is the missing debate about terrorism at home, against which our vast security apparatus will never entirely protect us. Suicide bombers have restricted access to Israeli targets due to the separation wall and other segregation strategies. But there are plenty of opportunities here. What will happen if there is a new incident of whatever scale? Or more than one? Unleashing the dogs of war in this latest episode of wanton cruelty means we really don’t know. War, as Clausewitz taught, is unpredictable, and globalization means that goes double.

Friday, 1 August 2014

After bombing civilian shelters, what comes next?

A respectable crowd snaked through midtown Manhattan today to denounce the slaughter in Gaza, an act that I consider the minimum moral duty of any sentient being. The majority were Arabs or Arab-Americans, many in Palestinian garb, and given that any ethnic group in New York can put together a sizeable number, it was a bit disappointing that there weren’t more unhyphenated Americans present. But from the honks and thumbs-up displayed by passers by and drivers, one could conclude that sympathy for the underdogs in this case is much more widespread than would be surmised from a viewing of the main channels or a reading of congressional debates.

It’s almost impossible to digest most of the coverage coming from that forsaken corner of the globe, the open-air prison camp that seems to form a permanent feature of the Israeli landscape. The Israeli leadership has no intention of making the place livable or permitting the population there a minimum subsistence, leading to the question of what on earth do they plan to do in the long-term future?

Here is one answer, quickly posted and then withdrawn when the reactions were judged inconvenient: genocide.
Comparisons with the appalling history of the last world war are facile and usually offensive, but there are certain parallels that should not be ignored. Hannah Arendt pointed out that the first key step leading to the Shoah was to declare Jews stateless because citizenship is the first requirement of all rights. People without a state are people with no rights. This alone should cause Israelis to shudder with horror at the situaiton they and their state have engineered.

We’re a long way off from systematic mass murder of the sort cooked up by the Nazi regime that embodies modern evil. But this event, occurring within the living memory of many people still with us, arose in the land of Beethoven and Goethe in the heart of European civilization. We deserve the curse of future generations if we do not recognize that such horrors remain within the realm of possibility and that only human agency—not turning our faces away in fatigue—could have or will put a stop to them.