Archive for the ‘Other’ Category
Racist Nationalism Returns to the Western Political Scene – An Analysis (14 December 2016) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Racism and the Trump victory, November 2016
There is little doubt that white racism played a role in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. As Zach Beauchamp demonstrates in a 10 November 2016 article at Vox.com, white voters in mostly white geographic areas supported Trump at a rate of about 25%. However, in areas of growing ethnic and racial diversity, the percentage goes way up. Beauchamp quotes the research of the University of London scholar Eric Kaufmann, who surveyed Trump’s white supporters. Kaufmann’s original findings are reported in the policy blog of the London School of Economics. One result was that in areas that had experienced a 30% rise in Latino population, the number of whites who supported Trump rose to 70%.
Trump’s own racism had been on public display during his entire campaign and often (although erroneously) merged the phenomena of immigration and violence. Here he found a ready and responsive audience. Beauchamp goes on to demonstrate that white supporters of Donald Trump saw immigration and terrorism as the country’s major problems. Moreover, they connected these two issues to their fear of the country’s growing diversity. Of course, economic woes were also a concern, but they too were exacerbated by fear of the fact that the country was then under the leadership of a black man, Barack Obama.
Then, to broaden their outlook of the xenophobic and sectarian impact on politics, both Beauchamp and Kaufmann point out that the racist underpinning of Trump’s electoral success parallels the Brexit voting patterns in the United Kingdom in June 2016. There too, ethnocentric “anxiety over a changing society” appears to have spurred on the vote to leave the European Union.
Part II – Racism and the Netanyahu victory, March 2015
Brexit is not the only telling parallel to a Trump-style popular racist appeal. Indeed, if you are looking for someone whose bigoted outlook and unethical political practice comes close to Donald Trump’s, you can go to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu stood for reelection in March 2015. His main opponent was Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. During the election campaign, one of Herzog’s consultants was the American political adviser Paul Begala – a long-time political ally of the Clintons. Soon after Netanyahu’s reelection Begala explained how Netanyahu had won. “He won because of race. … In the U.S. you could never get away with those kind of racist appeals. But, man, did it work [in Israel].” He went on, “I have never seen anything like Bibi’s furious surge to the right in the last 4 days [of the campaign]. He had robo-calls calling the [U.S.] President ‘Hussein Obama, the Muslim,’ he had ads saying the Arabs will vote in droves. He accused Herzog of wanting to divide Jerusalem.”
The fact that “man, did it [this racist approach] work” in Israel should have been no surprise. A year later, in March 2016, a Pew Research Center survey of Israeli society reported that “that nearly half of Jews in the country [48%] say they support the ethnic cleansing of Arabs.” The Israeli prime minister and fellow travelers certainly knew this ahead of the Pew report.
As it turned out, Netanyahu’s appeal to fear of the Arabs was roughly equivalent to Trump’s appeal to fear of immigrants in the United States. Bagala readily recognized the importance of the racist factor in Netanyahu’s success. Where he was wrong was to think that “in the U.S. you could never get away with those kind of racist appeals.” It turned out that many white U.S. voters were as receptive to such a race-based fear campaign as were Israeli Jews. As with Netanyahu, racism helped Trump win.
Part III – Part of a Broader Phenomenon
Taking a broader view, we can see that the racism manifesting itself in Israel and the United States is part of a general phenomenon of reactionary populism spreading throughout the West. This fact has been recognized by the venerable and progressive Israeli commentator Uri Avnery. In a recent column entitled “The Call of the Nation,” he observes, “a DARK wave is submerging democracies all over the Western world. … fascism and populism are gaining ground all around” and doing so in the name of old-fashioned ethnocentric nationalism. After all, “for most people, the need to belong to a nation is a profound psychological need. People create a national culture, often speak a national language. People are ready to die for their nation.” In the end, Avnery concludes that “What we are witnessing now is a rebellion of nationalism against the trend towards … a globalist world.”
Part IV – Racism and Economics
The globalist trend Avnery speaks of showed its disruptive potential soon after World War II. It was then that there began a large-scale movement of peoples from poorer countries and regions into richer ones. This was often supported by Western elites because of pressing, if temporary, post-war labor needs. This was later joined by the creation of larger trans-national economic units which saw the movement of not people, but jobs, flowing from richer to poorer countries and regions. The motive here was a search for cheaper labor markets.
For the average Western citizen it was all very confusing and frightening. Almost simultaneously they saw what appeared to be alien groups invading their local environments while, a bit later, their traditional job base was swept away to some foreign land. It was inevitable that all of this would, sooner or later, cause a backlash. In the West, this backlash would merge racism with economics – suggesting to many that economic rivalry was another form of racial competition.
The backlash has also, as Avnery suggests, released a wave of nationalist populism, with its strong ethnocentric undertones. While this movement will create a context for racist and tribalistic venting, it will not be able to do more than momentarily slow economic globalization. That will continue as long as capitalism rules our commercial, fiscal and industrial lives. So, economically, it is one world in the long run.
Seeing these two – racist nationalism and economic globalism – in juxtaposition is important. Racist nationalism as it now expresses itself in the U.S., Israel, the United Kingdom and the European continent has the ability to make a profound mess of local politics. It can, and no doubt will, undermine democratic virtues such as civil and human rights. It will probably undermine the rule of law itself. Yet, the very thing it fears the most, the one-world economic process, will certainly go on apace. And, because of the weakening of political and legal rights at the hands of racist and authoritarian governments, in the long run we will all end up more exposed to economic exploitation than we ought to be.
That will prove to be a very high price for a whatever emotional satisfaction your stalwart white nationalist may now feel.
Natural Born Killers? An Analysis (9 October 2016) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – “Bloodthirsty Tendencies”
There is a new study, published in the journal Nature, entitled “The Phylogenetic Roots of Human Lethal Violence.” The study argues two points: (1) along with many other mammals and particularly primates, human lethal violence is innate because it is part of a long “evolutionary history”; and (2) However, for humans, it is also a behavior that is responsive to our cultural environment. So, over time, “culture modulates our bloodthirsty tendencies.”
What is particularly original about this study is that it places human violence against the backdrop of general mammalian and primate lethal behavior. The researchers found that there is a correlation between the level of intra-group violence of those species that lie close to each other on the evolutionary tree.
In order to come to this conclusion the authors of the study (who are evolutionary biologists) looked at the available data on in-group violent deaths in 1,020 mammal species. From this information they tried to approximate how murderous each group is. For conclusions about the human propensity for murder, the researchers looked at 600 human groups stretching back as far as 50,000 years ago. It turns out we are less violent than baboons and more violent than bonobos, while about as violent as chimpanzees.
Just for the reader’s information, it seems that killer whales almost never hurt each other, and bats and anteaters are quite peaceable to others of their kind. On the other hand, if you’re a cougar, chinchilla or marmot, things can get very dangerous and one has to stay wary of the neighbors.
Part II – Are We Getting Less Violent?
Getting back to humans, almost every serious historian knows that our propensity for lethal violence has been around for as far back as we can go. Thus the proposition that this behavior is inherited from our pre-human ancestors seems reasonable. However, there is an effort on the part of some researchers in this field, including those who wrote the Nature article, to make the argument that humans are getting less violent. For instance, this study claims that among Paleolithic hunter-gather groups, roughly 2% of deaths were the result of lethal violence. Later, in medieval times, this allegedly jumps to 12%. But in the modern age, with “industrialized states exerting the rule of law,” the rate appears to have fallen to 1.3%. Is all of this really accurate?
The authors are not the first to make this claim. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in a 2011 book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that humans can and have lowered their level of interpersonal violence through creating institutions and laws that discourage such behavior.
As a general rule we should be wary of such sweeping claims about behavior over such large expanses of time. As one observer of the Nature study commented, much of the data [sources range from archeological digs to modern crime statistics] is “imprecise.” The same is true of Pinker’s evidence. It is due to just such challenges that such studies present these claims in terms of statistical models.
Part III – Evolution and Culture
There is much more that can be said about what may well be our species’s “innate tendency to solve problems with violence.” For one thing, it often appears to be territorial. Human beings, nomadic or otherwise, stake out territory and then defend it. This is obviously similar to what certain other primates, close to us on the evolutionary tree, do and so it is reasonable to assume an evolutionary derivation for this behavior.
As societies developed – got larger and more complex – efforts arose to control destructive behavior within in-groups. These took the form of the laws referred to by Steven Pinker as well as the present authors. However, sometimes the data seems to belie this claim. For instance, why should the medieval period be so much more violent than the Paleolithic if societal institutions and laws were so much more developed at that later time? There might be extenuating circumstances to explain this, but the glitch does suggest that an overall answer to why the rates of lethal human violence go up and down is complicated and multifaceted.
And, what can we say of the modern era, which is supposed to be humankind’s least murderous epoch? If the statistics are correct – which seems counterintuitive – we should be reassured. However, less reassuring is the fact that our technological know-how has also supplied modern mankind with nuclear weapons and thus the ability to wipe out our species, and most all the others too.
Part IV – Dreaming of a Single, Secure In-Group
There may be a glimmer of hope for a more peaceful future if indeed our violent inclinations are tied to acquisition of territory, and within those territories we usually make efforts to minimize intra-group violence. Under those circumstances one can speculate that the development of ever larger states (culminating in a world state) with ever larger in-groups (culminating in humanity as a single in-group) seems the way to go. Then, in theory, law and order within these expanding categories would make for a more peaceful world.
Just to interpose this part of the analysis into today’s U.S. politics, we can note that the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, wants to make the country’s collective in-group smaller by deporting hundreds of thousands and closing the borders to thousands more. Such a policy can only make the United States more insular and subject to the paranoia of a heightened us-versus-them worldview. On the other hand, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, seems to be advocating a hawkish foreign policy that emphasizes the need to control foreign territory directly or by proxy but with no inclination to increase the in-group. This too can only make the world a more dangerous place. The view of one candidate or the other being a “lesser evil” might depend on whether you are focused on domestic or foreign policy.
Whatever the optimistic claim of the Nature study about today’s comparative level of lethal violence, it seems pretty clear that our laws are not doing well enough to supply the peaceful future most of us hope for. For instance, international human rights laws are so infrequently enforced as to be of minimal effect. And, as current migrant crises around the world make clear, the prospects for ever larger in-groups is but a dream.
All of this only gives added credence to the notion that our willingness to slaughter each other is innate – an adaptive habit of a long evolutionary history. This conclusion is offered as an explanation rather than an excuse. For, as the Nature study authors recognize, culture can impact such behavior – tamping it down at least within a designated in-group. Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that our addiction to lethal violence is our evolutionary fate, and that it hangs there, like a sword of Damocles. always ready to impose itself should the delicate strand of law snap.
On the Down Side of Institutionalized Religion – An Analysis (31 January 2016) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Religion as Ideology
Ideologies are pre-set forms of thinking that shape people’s worldviews and, supposedly, help to order and simplify reality. While this supposition is always flawed to one extent or another, ideologies can be very seductive. In part this is because they free their adherents from the hard work of critical thinking. Thus, they are often held onto tenaciously.
Because ideologies distort reality, they are particularly unsuited for those aspiring to power as well as their devoted supporters. History is full of examples of politically powerful ideologies that underscore this fact: fascism, communism, various military cults (particularly popular in South America and the Middle East) and even the ideology of democracy as manipulated by corrupt elites, who play the Pied Piper to the masses.
Yet there is still one more ideology out there which, even now, wreaks havoc by either claiming for itself the trappings of secular power or attaching itself in some influential advisory way to the institutions of power. That ideology is religion in its various institutional manifestations.
I want to emphasize that I am not referring to the personal religious convictions of millions by which life is made to appear understandable and meaningful. Whether such convictions are accurate or not, they play an important role at the individual level and, as long as they do not promote harmful intolerance, should be left to benignly function at the local level. What I am referring to are religious ideologies that are institutionalized in bureaucracies that can project power much as do secular institutions of authority. Religious ideologies so institutionalized see themselves as possessed of God-given truth while playing the game of power amidst human competitors.
Part II – Religion in Power
It is often said that we live in an age of religious revival. Whatever this might say for the “spiritual” shortcomings of modernity, this is a state of affairs rife with political danger. A quick look at history can again easily demonstrate why this is so.
— In the 10th through 15th centuries in Europe, Roman Catholicism was a strong political power centered in the Papacy. Historians often claim it preserved what was left of Greco-Roman civilization ((despite the fact that the Church closed down the ancient system of public baths.) It also brought with it the bloodletting of the Crusades and the tortures of the Inquisition.
— When, briefly, the Protestants tasted political power in the form of Calvin’s Geneva, Savonarola’s Florence, Cromwell’s England, and the early New World establishments of North America, the result was widespread intolerance, civil war, burning flesh at Salem and elsewhere and, of course, no dancing. It does not take great imagination to see the potential for high levels of intolerance occurring if some representative of today’s Christian right, say Ted Cruz, takes power in the U.S.
— Buddhism used to be universally revered as a religion of peace and tolerance. However, put it in power or ally it to those who politically rule, and what once was benign turns malignant. Thus, consider the self-identified Buddhist government of Sri Lanka and its brutal campaign against the Tamils in the north of that country. Likewise, you can find Buddhists allied to the government of Myanmar crying for the blood of the country’s Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
— There is a lot of Hindu fanaticism in India, and It remains to be seen if the present government of that country, dominated now by Hindu nationalists, will again turn loose the religious passion which, in the recent past, has led to sectarian violence and massacres of India’s religious minorities (again, notably Muslims).
— Where the Muslims seek or hold state power, the situation is little different. According to Sunni tradition, the ethical standards of behavior set down in the Quran did not dictate state behavior beyond the brief reign of the so-called “rightly guided Caliphs.” Shiites often point out that things fell apart almost immediately upon Mohammad’s death. Civil war and internecine slaughter followed in both scenarios.
Today, in Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf emirates, one finds Sunni intolerance of Shiite Islam and the exploitation of non-citizen laborers despite their being fellow Muslims. In Shia Iran, authorities seem unsure just how tolerant or intolerant to be toward more moderate interpretations of their own, now politicized, religious tenets.
Then, of course, you have various organizations, claiming to be Sunni Muslim, ranging from ISIS to Al Nusra or some other Al Qaeda variant, all reaching for political power. Where they have tasted success, as in the case of ISIS, the consequences have been particularly bad.
— Since 1948 Judaism has succumbed to the same fate as other world religions entangling themselves in politics. Despite all the rationalizations, propaganda, and self-deception, it is clear that institutional Judaism is now firmly melded to the deeply discriminatory and particularly brutal political ideology of Zionism. I use the word “melded” because what we have here is something more than just an alliance of two separate entities. The Zionists have insisted since 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration, was proclaimed, that the fate of Judaism and an Israeli “national home” are thoroughly intertwined. Their insistent manipulations have resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The consequences of this melding have been horrific. If you want to know just how horrid things have become, there are numerous Palestinian and Jewish human rights groups that are easily found on the web which will document Israeli behavior in all its dehumanizing detail.
For a more personalized assessment of just what this melding means for Judaism as a religion I recommend the recent book by Marc H. Ellis entitled The Heartbeat of the Prophetic (New Diaspora Books, 2015). Ellis is a Jewish theologian who, in the 1970s, was greatly influenced by the work of Roman Catholic priests in Latin America who were promoting “liberation theology.” That “for the good of the people” interpretation of religion was corrosive of the institutionalized Church, and so the movement was ultimately stifled. However, Ellis thought that the same philosophy could be applied to Judaism – an insight that eventually led him to denounce Zionized Judaism in a manner reminiscent of the prophets of the Old Testament.
For Ellis, institutionalized Judaism has been reduced to an adjunct of an expansionist and racist political ideology. He feels that there is no getting around the inherent evil of this situation. No two-state solution or other “progressive” approach can erase it. As long as Judaism persists in identifying itself in terms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology, the ethical underpinnings of the religion are left behind in the wreckage of an evolving “Jewish empire.”
Part III – Lessons to Be Learned
What have all these historical examples to teach those of religious faith? Some fundamentalists would have us believe the lesson is to remain humble and obedient in the face of an unfathomable deity whose mysterious purposes are simply beyond human comprehension. Yet there is nothing incomprehensible about the repetitive death, destruction and intolerance bred by institutionalized ideologies. And, as the historical examples given above tell us, religious ideology is no exception.
A better lesson learned seems to be: if you want to be religious, keep it personal and tolerant, avoid tendencies toward institutionalization beyond the level of local charity and organized good works, and stay clear of political alliances. It is said that Jesus told his disciples that “where two or three of you are gathered together there I too will be.” Those are just about the right numbers when it comes to keeping religion safe for the believers and non-believers alike. After all, when you have two or three thousand, or two or three million gathered together, for whatever purpose, then something quite different from a helpful and humane spirit is likely to be present.
Global Warming Redux: Another Ticking Bomb Out of Paris – An Analysis (29 December 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – COP21
Paris was certainly 2015’s center for ticking bombs. The year was bracketed, first in January then again in November, by major terrorist attacks and ended with a December environmental conference which, given its non-binding results, opens the door to even more terror, albeit of a different kind, into the next century and beyond.
The 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, ended in Paris on 12 December 2015. If you are not familiar with the name or acronym, it refers to the latest gathering of nations (195 of them) looking toward a collective decision to limit global warming by slowing the release of greenhouse gases. Following the conference closure there was a short spate of positive reactions that has now been followed by a rather ominous silence.
Until very recently there was a large number of people, mostly business people, lobbyists, and politicians, who denied that human practices, such as the use of fossil fuels, had any significant impact on planetary warming, and some dismissed the idea of warming altogether. These numbers seem to have shrunk, and most of those still adhering to such notions are not often heard in public. This muted opposition helped pave the way for the at once limited and over-hyped result achieved at the Paris conference.
The overall goal of COP 21 was an international agreement that would hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, and then reduce the amount of warming even more in the years following. This goal was certainly agreed to in theory, but the conference also left us with no convincing reason to believe that the goal will be met in practice. According to Science (18 December 2015), the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, commitments were indeed made to pursue relevant “technological development,” mobilize “climate finance,” enhance transparency in the reporting of overall greenhouse emissions and have developed nations acknowledge their “legal responsibility” (but “without liability or compensation”) for the damage global warming is doing to poorer nations. All of this is well and good in a half-hearted sort of way, but it should be noted that the entire deal will only go into effect in April 2016 if “55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions have formally signed it.” And even if this happens, subsequent follow-through in terms of the reduction of greenhouse emissions is still hypothetical. Thus, as the Guardian newspaper reported (12 December 2015) in a confusing, contradictory way: “The overall agreement is legally binding but some elements – including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements – are not.”
That should be quite sufficient to instill serious doubt about the ultimate outcome of COP21. Nonetheless, reactions were still upbeat. Everyone wanted to find the glass half full. Many climate experts, when asked if there was something about 2015 that made them hopeful, pointed to the Paris conference. Michael T. Klare, writing in Tom’s Dispatch (13 December 2015), proclaimed that as for those advocating the continued use of fossil fuels, “the war they are fighting is a losing one.” The transition to renewable forms of energy is inevitable. However, looking at the next hundred years, no one would say with certainty that the conference’s decisions would actually make a crucial difference. Thus, Andrea Germanos writing in Common Dreams (12 December 2015) quotes commentator George Monbiot in reference to COP21, “by comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
Part II – Why a Disaster?
The Science article cited above puts the situation in historical context. “The individual national climate plans in the run-up to the meeting could still result in as much as 3.5 degrees centigrade of warming by 2100.” At 3.5 degrees we can expect sea levels to rise anywhere from 3 to 7 feet. Science goes on to explain that “much of the agreement’s promise hinges on the fine print to be hammered out in the coming years. And the provisions for individual nations to curb emissions further – crucial if the world is to limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade or less – has limited legal bite.”
In truth, even the 2 degree goal is insufficient. Those at most risk, such as the Pacific island nations, wanted to hold the line at 1.5 degrees. However, their fate, which in some cases is already terminal, was not deemed important enough to warrant the sacrifices the rest of the world would have to make to meet this demand. This in itself is a very bad sign.
There will, of course, be increasing efforts by environmental organizations, seeking to mobilize mass sentiment, to bring pressure on governments and industries. As one such mass movement leader declared at the end of the COP21 conference, “Now it is time to hold them [national leaders] to their promises. 1.5? Game on” (Common Dreams, 12 December 2015). No doubt such mobilization, like the hope for investment in renewable energy technology, will be very important in the long run. That it can achieve its ambitious goal in the short run is doubtful because there are other, even larger, organizable masses out there who will resist rapid, necessary change.
For instance, there are the inward-looking elements of the populations and leaders of the United States, China and India – the world’s biggest contributors to global warming. In the United States at least a third of the voting population is supportive of the conservative, anti-regulatory Republican Party that currently controls the congressional side of government. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has dismissed the COP21 agreement as “no more binding than any other agreement” on global warming made in past.
China has recently admitted that it has been underreporting its coal burning in recent years. This calls into doubt that nation’s collective will to meet its COP21 pledges. To do so will unavoidably impact economic growth and increase unemployment with all the accompanying political consequences. A major part of India’s pledge to lower and/or compensate for growing greenhouse emissions is the preservation and expansion of the country’s forests. However, approximately “275 million Indians subsist on resources extracted from forests,” including forest wood itself, and past efforts at conservation in this area have led to political unrest and significant cheating through official corruption.
It is not that these three countries won’t make efforts to, say, move to renewable energy whenever and wherever feasible. They will. However, it is both politically and culturally unlikely they will be able to do enough to hold down warming to 2 degrees, much less 1.5 degrees.
Part III – Conclusion
At this point one should ask what the Marshall Islands in the Pacific have in common with lower tip of Manhattan on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The answer is that both are threatened with inundation by 2100. In the case of lower Manhattan, it might be possible to build a sea wall to temporarily hold back the rising sea level. No such effort is possible for the Marshall Islands. It looks as if that island nation, with its roughly 53,000 people, is doomed.
The prospect that 195 nations can successfully coordinate their efforts to put in place policies that, over the next hundred years, will negatively impact their economies and the standard of living of significant numbers of citizens is far-fetched. Not impossible, mind you, but from a historical point of view, highly improbable.
What is probable is that local interests will promote denial long enough to make the necessary sacrifices politically unac.hievable. They certainly have done so so far. That means our grandchildren will almost certainly live in a very different atmospheric and geographic world than we do. And, of course, going forward, no one should invest in seashore real estate
The Decline of the Western Ethnic State – An Analysis (24 September 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The “Ideal State”
If you were transported back to Europe in 1900 and asked educated citizens to describe the ideal political arrangement, what they would outline to you is a homogeneous nation-state: France for the French, Germany for the Germans, Italy for the Italians, and the like. They would note exceptions, but describe them as unstable. For instance, at this time the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, ethnically, a very diverse place, but it was politically restless. Come World War I, ethnic desires for self-rule and independence would help tear this European-centered multinational empire apart. In truth, even those states that fancied themselves ethnically unified were made up of many regional outlooks and dialects, but the friction these caused was usually minor enough to allow the ideal of homogeneity to prevail. The ethnically unified nation-state was almost everyone’s “ideal state.”
This standard of homogeneity started to break down after World War II. After this war the foreign empires run by many of Europe’s homogeneous states were in retreat and in their wake came a slew of new nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Simultaneously, the impact of the end of empire on the European nations was to have their own homogeneous status eroded. For instance, when Great Britain set up the Commonwealth as a substitute for empire she allowed freer immigration into England for Commonwealth citizens. The result was an influx of people of color from former British colonies in Africa, India-Pakistan and the Caribbean. A similar thing happened as the French empire crumbled. With its demise many North Africans, as well as Vietnamese Catholics, went to France. Later, Turks would go to Germany, a preference that reflected the close relations between Berlin and the defunct Ottoman Empire. Then came the formation of the European Union (EU) in 1993, which facilitated the flow of labor across European borders. Now citizens of one EU state could go and work in any other member state.
In other words, the twenty or thirty years following World War II marked the beginning of the end of the Western homogeneous state.
Part II – The Refugee Crisis
Now we may be witnessing the final stage of that demise. The present refugee crisis resulting from wars raging in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, among other places in the Middle East, has set in movement millions of displaced people. Many of these refugees are heading for Europe.
While initially most of the European Union leaders showed some willingness to take in substantial numbers of refugees, strong resistance from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic caused a pause in the effort. This was a predictable moment. All established populations, even relatively diverse ones, fear that their cultural norms and economic advantages will be threatened by large waves of new immigrants. At the extreme, one finds ideologically and religiously defined nations such as the Arab Gulf states and the allegedly Westernized Israel (itself a product of an overwhelming refugee invasion of Palestine) refusing to take in any of the present refugees. Even in a country such as the United States, which is historically built upon the inflow of diverse populations, it is politically difficult to open borders to new refugees in need. Initially, announcing a willingness to allow an embarrassingly small number of 10,000 refugees to enter, Washington has increased that to 100,000 between now and 2017.
Getting back to the European scene, the pressures now building on the borders eventually resulted in a EU decision, allegedly binding on all its 28 member states, to speed up the intake screening process for refugees and distribute the accepted numbers across the EU countries. How many will ultimately be allowed into Europe is still unclear. If the leaders of Europe are smart about it they will go beyond merely symbolic numbers. If they are not, then there will be concentration camps on their borders and eventual violence that will mark a dark period in their supposed civilized histories. Controlled or not, in the end, many of the refugees will probably find a way in.
Part III – Ironic Justice
There is ironic justice in this prospect. After all, the wars that have uprooted so many were triggered by Western intervention in the Middle East. One can thank George W. Bush and his neoconservative colleagues (along with British allies) for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That action set loose the forces that have subsequently displaced the people who make up the bulk of today’s refugees. To this can be added the 2011 NATO intervention in the civil war in Libya, in which France, Italy and the U.S. led the way. This action has prolonged the anarchy in that country and is one of the reasons that 300,000 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of Europe in 2015 alone. At least 2,500 of them died in the attempt.
It is a testimony to the fact that the average citizen has little knowledge and less interest in their nation’s foreign policies that few in Europe and the U.S. recognize, much less acknowledge, responsibility for the present disaster.
Part IV – Conclusion
The population in western and central Europe has been shifting in the direction of diversity for the last seventy years, and that of the United States more or less consistently since the nation’s founding. Along with diversity comes a complementary, if perhaps more gradual, shift in culture.
Opposing this historical trend is the fact that anti-immigrant resistance among established national populations is almost a default position. However, this is like spitting in the wind. In the long term, the evolution of populations moves from homogeneity to diversity. It is just a matter of how long the process takes.
Thus, from every angle, ethical as well as historical, the way to approach the present refugee crisis is to allow, in a controlled but adequately responsive way, the inflow of those now running from the ravages of invasion and civil war.
In so doing we should accept the demise of the homogeneous state. Whether it is Germany, France, Hungary, Israel or Burma, the concept is historically untenable and neither raises nor even maintains our civilizational standards. Rather it grinds them down into the dust of an inhumane xenophobia.
On the Dangerous Aspects of Noise – An Analysis (1 August 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Restaurant Scene
Many of you must have experienced something like this: you and a companion go into a restaurant and, over a good meal, would like to carry on a fruitful conversation – perhaps on the virtues of the agreement President Obama and his international partners have finally reached with Iran. However, you quickly realize that such a conversation is impossible.
The conversation is not impossible because your companion is a member of the Republican-controlled Congress, nor is it impossible because, like so many people, he or she doesnt know one factual thing about Iran. No. It is impossible because neither you nor your companion can hear each other. The restaurants decibel level is in the 90s, which replicates the noise intensity of an active construction site. Indeed, the environment is so noisy that even shouting is futile. It would seem that more and more of our stylish eating establishments have melded cacophony with cuisine.
Noise is an old problem. It started to seriously invade Western culture with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. The women and children who worked in the early textile factories had to develop a form of sign language to communicate over the racket made by the machines. It wasnt until 1972 that the U.S. government began to regulate workplace din as a health hazard. Before that, one can assume that millions of citizens went through their adult life made partially deaf by the modernitys accelerating hum.
Despite the realization that high levels of noise can hurt you, restaurants somehow escaped regulation, and some of them now present a hazard to customers and staff alike. However, this fact fails to move many owners and managers of otherwise presentable eating establishments. They insist that deafening noise is stylish – even fun – maybe like a rock concert.
Part II – The Noise in the News
It is not only high levels of restaurant chatter that can be harmful. In other public spaces as diverse as airports, doctors offices and gyms the environment is dominated by television screens broadcasting, among other things, news programs, which manage to interfere with the average citizens ability to think clearly.
This brings us back to that hypothetical conversation mentioned above – the one on the nuclear deal with Iran. Those TV news programs filling the public airwaves are now regurgitating a version of deafening nonsense about this important subject – which only goes to show that noise comes in many forms.
Take for instance news noise coming from Republican Party leaders. Here are a few examples:
Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois who has declared that the nuclear accord condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf. He explains that tens of thousands of people in the Middle East are gonna lose their lives because of this decision by Barack Hussein Obama.
Jeb Bush, Republican presidential candidate, declares, This is not diplomacy, this is appeasement.
Senator Lindsey Graham insists that its akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel by the P5+1 because it ensures their primary antagonist Iran will become a nuclear power and allows them to rearm conventionally.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Christian Fundamentalist, says, Shame on the Obama administration for agreeing to a deal that empowers an evil Iranian regime to carry out its threat to wipe Israel off the map and bring death to America.
All of this is coming to the public repetitively through varied media. And all of it is noisy nonsense. How do these Republican notables know their assertions are true? After all, they contradict the positions of most of the worlds professional intelligence experts, including those working for the U.S. government and, it turns out, many of their Israeli counterparts.
The Republicans who shout that Obama administration of being “fleeced and bamboozled by the Iranians are reading from a script which looks like a Machiavellian set-piece designed to attack the president no matter what he does.The authors just plug in the issue (be it health care, immigration or Irans nuclear energy program) and start shouting. The U.S. Zionists, of course, use a script written in Israel. Acting just like agents of that country, they are bound to shout what Benjamin Netanyahu shouts. For instance, the concessions agreement Iran is about to receive paves the way for it to arm itself with nukes.
Either way, the resulting noise leads away from – and not toward – reality. Thus, the complaints that Obama has simply surrendered to the Iranians is the exact opposite of the truth. Iran has agreed to significant reductions in its nuclear program as well as the most intrusive inspections regime ever imposed on any nations nuclear energy program.
Part III – Conclusion
Noise in its many manifestations deafens more than ones ears. It deafens ones mind. And that is its purpose, as used by both restaurant managers and politicians.
On the one hand, restaurateurs believe they know what it takes to have fun at the dinner table – it takes the merging of all diners into a cloud of near-mindless chatter. Thus, it doesnt matter if the chatter has any recognizable content, for it merely serves as a vehicle for entering a crowd-focused experience. The chatter makes you one with everyone else in the restaurant. And, I guess, that is why many people come back for more. The food, no doubt, is secondary.
On the other hand, the politicians also invite you into a crowd experience, but one of a more dangerous kind. The noise in the news is not diffused chatter but a loud and sustained message. It is, more often then not, a form of propaganda – the same storyline repeated over and over again until it fills the public airwaves and from there comes to dominate the thought waves of the ignorant.
No doubt about it, the world is getting noisier every day – a fact which might encourage the independent minded to eat more meals at home and turn off the television.That way you get less calories and more clarity of mind in one quiet package.
Divine Time Import – An Analysis (21 June 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Importing the “Divine Past” into the Present
Prior to the 18th century – that is prior to the Enlightenment – if you had asked a literate Westerner when he or she thought the most ideal of human societies did or would exist, most of them would have located that society in the past. The religious majority might have placed it in the biblical age of Solomon or the early Christian communities of the 1st century after Christ. Both would have been considered divinely inspired times. Now, come forward a hundred years, say to the beginning of the 19th century, and ask the same question. You would notice that the answer was beginning to change. Having passed through the Enlightenment and with the Industrial Revolution in process, the concept of continual progress had been invented, and with it some (but by no means all) people started to place that hypothetically ideal society in the future. For the futurists the question of divine guidance no longer mattered.
Today, many folks worldwide believe in progress and assume that tomorrow not only will be different from today, but will in some scientific-technological way be better. The question here is not whether they are correct, but why there isn’t a unanimous consensus in favor of progress – for clearly there is not.
The truth is that there are millions of people, Muslims, Jews and Christians and others who not only still idealize a religiously imagined past, but want, in one way or another, to import that past into the present – and not only their present but everyone else’s as well. Whatever one might think of the teachings of the Bible and Quran, this is a highly problematic desire. In fact, it is downright dangerous. The following examples will prove this point.
Part II – The Muslim Version
The Guardian newspaper recently carried a shocking article entitled “Isis Slave Markets Sell Girls .…” As the story goes, ISIS, or the self-proclaimed “Islamic State,” has set up slave markets where young girls are sold. Most of the girls seem to be war booty acquired during raids on areas populated by minorities, such as the Yazidis, who are not considered Muslim.
According to the Zainab Bangura, the UN envoy investigating the issue of sexual violence stemming from the wars in Syria and Iraq, the abduction of young girls is a ploy to attract male recruits. “The foreign fighters are the backbone of the fighting,” Bangura says, and “this is how they attract young men: we have women waiting for you, virgins you can marry.”
The UN envoy then adds that ISIS seems determined “to build a society that reflects the 13th century.” Actually, she is off by some 500 years. The time frame ISIS leadership is aiming for is the 7th century CE. That was the time of the first Islamic community, and from the ISIS point of view it was a divinely appointed one. Therefore its cultural and social practices, allegedly sanctioned by the Quran, are as legitimate today as they were in the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. So, first and foremost, the slave trade is sanctioned as a revival of a divine past. If it lures new male recruits, that is no doubt seen as a bonus.
From the point of view of modern secularized society, this is pretty crazy stuff. However, it is not unique to ISIS.
Part III – The Jewish Version
There is a sect of religious Jews who are equally determined to import into the present an aspect of an ancient, supposedly divine, past. Their aim is to resurrect Solomon’s temple, an artifact of the 6th century BCE. Rebuilding the original temple (which would then be called the “third temple” because the first two were destroyed by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively) would, according to the advocacy organization the Temple Institute, “usher in a new era of universal harmony and peace.”
Given that this divine import would have to be built on the site now occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in the Islamic world, it is hard to see how peace can be the outcome. Nonetheless, according to its advocates, the Jews “have a biblical obligation to rebuild it. And, it would seem, some 43 percent of religious Israelis agree with this assertion. That means in the eyes of these particular people, the recreation of Solomon’s temple is as divinely legitimate as the slave markets run by ISIS. The major difference between the Temple Institute and ISIS is that, as of yet, the institute does not have the power to move from theory to practice.
Part IV – The Christian Version
It is bad enough to reestablish slavery in the name of religion, as some fanatical Muslims have done. It is not much better to advocate rebuilding Solomon’s Temple on stolen land in the name of religion, as some fanatical Jews now want to do. Yet it is quite another thing to conspire to bring about global war in the name of religion. This seems to be the special providence of fanatical Christians.
According to TV investigative journalist Bill Moyers, Christian fundamentalist organizations with millions of members financially support Israel in order to encourage expansionism, ethnic cleansing, and preemptive war against Iran, and ultimately to trigger a third world war. What is the point of this allegedly divinely inspired mayhem? According to such Christian fundamentalist sages as John C. Hagee, all of this is necessary to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Hagee knows this is so because he read it in the apocalytic writings of the New Testament.
And just who might have sympathy with such dangerous efforts to transform the present on the basis of dubious past prophecy? How about Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, along with growing numbers of voters and legislators both in the U.S. and the UK?
Part V – Conclusion
How is it possible, in our scientific age, that millions, including powerful political leaders, hold to such dangerous beliefs? Obviously the Enlightenment and its humanistic teachings did not work for everyone, and even the Industrial Revolution, in its capitalist manifestation, has proved persistently unsettling. That is, unsettling to community based on age-old – and allegedly divine – principles. After all, seemingly divine teachings were the basis for Western societies, as well as those in the Middle East, for over a thousand years. Counting from the Enlightenment, competing modernity has only been around for three hundred or so years.
In other words, our material world might be thoroughly grounded in applied electrical engineering and computer science, but for a surprising number of us, the emotional world seems to still be grounded in the imagined words of God. No wonder religion in all its various forms makes periodic comebacks. As part of this phenomenon, some of us select a part of the “divine past” as our ideal time. Some of us even convince ourselves that the world would be so much better if we could reconstruct the present along the lines of that imagined past.
Of course, most of those who think this way never get enough power and influence to actually move from theory to practice. Occasionally, however, someone, or some group, does. In the case of the Islamic world, the leaders of ISIS seem to have achieved this status, and so what do we get? Slave markets. In Israel the Knesset is full of folks who yearn for the some variation on biblical Israel, so what do we get? Well, if not yet the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, we get all that illegal expansion into “Judea and Samaria.” And, in the case of the Christians like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, both of whom seem to have used their worldly power to kill and maim millions in the name of prophecy, we get one war after another.
This suggests that the socio-religious outlook of Solomon, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ are simply not translatable into the modern world. Oh sure we have the Ten Commandments and all that. However, adherence to these rules should no longer be enforced as the word of God. In the West at least, they are, in a selective, updated fashion, part of the promulgated laws of multi-cultural communities – no more and no less – and it is best to keep it that way.
So let’s show some appreciation of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. When they separated reli.gion and government, they had a strong and accurate sense of history. It was a good move, even if not a divinely inspired one. It was also the implementation of a fine Enlightenment principle – a good match for modern society.
International Law and Crimes against Humanity – An Analysis (23 May 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part – Prosecuting Crimes against Humanity
The promulgation of International law addressing crimes against humanity was one of the major legal achievements resulting from World War II. As Robert Jackson, the lead American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials put it, the crimes bred by that conflict were “so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
Crimes against humanity include government-initiated or -assisted policies or practices resulting in massacre, dehumanization, unjust imprisonment, extrajudicial punishments, torture, racial/ethnic persecution, and other such acts. In reference to the last-cited crime, in 1976 the United Nations General Assembly declared the systematic persecution of one racial group by another (for instance, the practice of apartheid) to be a crime against humanity.
Part II – Undermining the Law
Given the origins of this body of law, it comes as a shock that there are now a number of countries that would like to weaken, and perhaps even do away with, this category of law. These states claim that terrorism, and the so-called war against it, have changed the international environment so greatly that laws designed to protect us all from crimes against humanity are now tying the hands of those who regard terrorism as the present greatest threat to civilization.
While this argument may have some headway with certain governments and populations, it is a distortion of facts and a mangling of history. The vast majority of crimes against humanity require a level of organization and force only found with the state.This fact was brought out during World War II to such a degree that it could no longer be ignored. On the other hand, the crimes of small groups of terrorists may indeed be heinous, but even at their worse, they do not come close, in terms of numbers affected, to the crimes of states. For governments to decry laws attempting to rein in their own major crimes as impediments against their efforts to battle those perpetrating, in comparison, relatively lesser crimes, is more propaganda than truth.
Part III – The Israeli Contribution
Take for example the State of Israel. The fact that Israel is among those states, perhaps the main state, attempting to do away with the laws protecting us all from crimes against humanity should come as yet another shock. How can a state that loudly proclaims that its reason for being is the protection of all Jews, seek to undermine laws that were, in good part, promulgated in response to the brutal persecution of Jews?
Part of the answer to this question may have to do with the fact that Israel does not represent all Jews, but only those who adhere to the Zionist ideology – the ideology of the Israeli state – and it is with the well-being of these Jews that the state appears most concerned. As for the alleged danger to all Jews (for instance, the resurgence of anti-Semitism), one suspects that Israel’s leaders use this as a pretense to pursue policies and practices relevant only to the State of Israel and its guiding ideology. And these policies and practices happen to consistently contravene the laws proscribing crimes against humanity.
The Israelis are not very secretive about this. Take, for instance, Moshe Yaalon, the present Israeli Defense Minister and one of those actively working against international law referencing crimes against humanity. At a recent conference entitled “Towards a New Law of War,” sponsored by Shurat HaDin (an organization of Israeli lawyers operating internationally to defend Israeli military and civilian practices which violate international law), Yaalon declared that in any future with conflict with Lebanon, Israel “will hurt Lebanese civilians including kids of the family … . We did it in the Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.” His excuse for this criminal position is that organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas allegedly hide their soldiers and weapons in densely populated urban areas. However, journalists on the ground have found this to be false. Yaalon also held out the prospect of using nuclear weapons against Iran sometime in the future. The fact that present international law holds such actions to be crimes against humanity is the reason Israel seeks to undermine such law and create a “new law of war.”
Another indicator that Israel will continue to defy this aspect of international law is the recent appointment of Ayelet Shaked as Minister of Justice in the newly formed government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Shaked has declared that Israel is at war with the entire Palestinian people and therefore they all should be destroyed, “including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” Shaked is a deceptively innocent-looking woman. Her behavior, however, calls to mind Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
Part IV – The West Gives a Green Light
Major Western nations seem ready to support Israel in this effort, even though it clearly encourages a new era of state-sponsored barbarism. For instance, the U.S. government has consistently protected Israel’s criminal behavior from United Nations condemnation by using its veto in the Security Council. The British government has restricted the use of “universal jurisdiction,” an aspect of international law that allows victims of war crimes to initiate prosecution against responsible individuals in any country that is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions. In order to exempt indictable Israelis, the UK has declared that only its Director of Public Prosecutions (always a politically malleable individual), rather than trial judges confronted with strong evidence, can issue universal jurisdiction arrest warrants. The governments of Canada and several European states are attempting to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which seeks to pressure a change in Israeli policies toward Palestinians. And on it goes.
Part V – Conclusion
The average citizen is either ignorant of or misinformed about the growing danger to an aspect of international law that protects us all. And that is too bad, because it is the average citizen who will always suffer the most from the commission of crimes against humanity.
Beyond the dangers of ignorance and misinformation, there is the ongoing problem of nationalism. The laws allowing for the prosecution of those who commit crimes against humanity were instituted at a time when most nations were so mindful of the barbarism of World War II that their leaders were willing to let go of a bit of their national sovereignty to create potentially meaningful international law. However, they would not go so far as to create an international police force with truly independent operating powers.
It has been seventy years since the end of World War II and nationalism is as strong as ever, while the memory of its barbaric capabilities has faded – despite isolated reminders offered by the multitude of small wars that come and go almost yearly.
So we are embedded in a cycle of violence, led astray by our faulty memories and national hatreds. By now we should know better, but we don’t.
Why We Need the International Criminal Court – An Analysis (15 February 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
This is the first of two analyses on the International Criminal Court. The second one will consider the Palestinian appeal to the Court.
Part I – The Need for Rules and Laws
Americans consider themselves citizens of “the Land of the Free” with a tradition of rugged individualism that still provides mythical fodder for organizations such as the Tea Party and the National Rifle Association. People associated with such organizations (and their numbers are in the millions) also exhibit a deep suspicion of government. They believe that the politicians they elect should, as one-time Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater put it, “aim not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” They believe that the fewer rules and laws there are (except those promoting their own peculiar brand of morality), the greater is the citizen’s freedom.
It takes just a little bit of historical knowledge to know that this attitude is dangerous nonsense. The fact is you cannot have a stable and safe human environment without rules and laws. That is one reason why they have always existed in one form or another at multiple levels of human society, in the family, the classroom, private clubs, the town, the state, the country, and so forth. In fact, human history can be read as the expansion of enforceable rules or laws from smaller to larger groupings. Wider circles obeying the same set of hopefully humane rules.
It is also a historical fact that the larger and more developed a society becomes, the more rules and laws it accumulates. This tendency, which has become analogous with “big government,” seems to drive right-wingers crazy. And indeed, some of these regulations might well be superfluous (generating “red tape”), but others are not. In fact, it is well thought out rules and laws that hold societies together – countering, though not always adequately, the centrifugal forces of economic greed, special interest selfishness, and the callousness of citizens who would turn their backs on societal needs so as to avoid paying taxes.
It is my guess that most of us, worldwide, know what good rules or laws look like. In part they reflect the sort of rights and restrictions enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, various Geneva Conventions, the Charter of the United Nations and similar documents agreed to by peoples of many cultures. When these are taken seriously as models for enforceable law, they have the potential to both rein in the anarchists and prevent draconian behavior by the powerful and influential.
Part II – Who Is Above the Law?
The adage that no one should be above the law is of particular importance here. The problem is that there are innumerable cases where some individual or group holds sufficient political power to defy the rule of law. This situation, which almost always leads to an abuse of power, can arise both domestically and internationally. In the context of domestic national affairs we call such people dictators or tyrants, or amoral CEOs of companies that allegedly are “too big to fail.” These folks are easily identified but, short of revolution, less easily brought to account. Then there are the crimes committed under the guise of foreign policy and directed against people of other countries. In such cases the average citizen of the offending nation either does not know what is happening or is made to believe that crimes are not crimes, but rather actions in defense of alleged national interests.These highly placed leaders presuming to be above the law are sometimes harder to identify and even less likely to be held accountable.
Part III – The International Criminal Court (ICC)
It is to address this problem of the accountability that the ICC was established in 2002 by a multilateral treaty known as the Rome Statute. According to its own rules, the Court operates only when national courts will not or cannot prosecute an individual suspected of heinous crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or other war crimes. Also, in order for the Court to have jurisdiction, crimes must have taken place within the territory of one or more of the 123 states that have ratified the Statute.
A number of important countries such as India, China and Saudi Arabia, have refused to sign on to the Rome Statute. Others, like the United States and Israel, have signed but never ratified the treaty and, subsequently, announced that they do not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.
That does not mean suspected criminals from non-ratifying nations are completely beyond the court’s jurisdiction. If a ratifying state claims that nationals of a non-ratifying state have committed crimes within its territory, the Court can investigate and, if warranted, indict the accused party. But then one comes up against the problem of enforcement. How do you arrest the indicted person if he is Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush or any number of Israeli military and civilian leaders, all of whom may well warrant the Court’s attention.
This issue has not yet been fully confronted because, until very recently, no one has actually brought the crimes of individuals representing large and powerful states, or their allies, to the attention of the Court. As a result the ICC’s list of prosecutions is notably lopsided. To date, all those indicted by the court have come from small nations without great power allies, and lacking influence within international institutions like the United Nations. Indeed, many of these prosecutions are against citizens of so-called failed states.
However, this is about to change due to the decision of the Palestinian National Authority to join the ICC. This has resulted in an ICC preliminary investigation of Israeli war crimes during the 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Part IV – Conclusion
How this investigation plays out will be a real test of ICC effectiveness. At this stage of our collective political history, how serious are we about creating a common set of rules allowing the investigation and punishment of serious crimes committed not just by leaders of small and weak states, but also by those who lead strong and influential nations? In other words, since law is one of the foundations of civilization, shouldn’t we make sure that no one stands above it.
Terror in Paris – An Analysis (17 January 2015) by Lawrence DavidsonPart I – The Attack and Its Immediate Context
On Wednesday 7 January 2015 two heavily armed men walked into the Paris offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) and methodically murdered twelve people, including the magazine’s editor Stephane Charbonnier (aka Charb), four cartoonists, a columnist, a proofreader, a maintenance worker, two policemen stationed inside the building, and one outside.The killers were Muslim extremists associated with al-Qaeda, but their actions were praised by the Islamic State (ISIS) as well. Almost everyone else, including most Muslim commentators, condemned the attack for the horrible crime it certainly was.
Why Charlie Weekly? The immediate reason for the attack seems to have been the repeated satirization of the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons that were, to put it mildly, of questionable taste. Of course the magazine had satirized others as well but gave disproportionate attention to Muslims and their Prophet.
All of this was done under the cover of freedom of speech. As Charb said in an 2012 interview, “Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we’re dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat.”
Part II – Charlie Hebdo and the Question of Freedom of Speech
I think everyone with a progressive outlook can agree that freedom to criticize governments and other centers of power is an absolute necessity if we are to have a free society. But we must also recognize that the notion of unimpaired free speech is an ideal that is constantly approached and retreated from. In practice its limits tend to be culturally and politically determined. Further, when we move beyond the critique of power there are good arguments for the position that freedom of speech should be coupled with a promulgated definition of social responsibility.
It seems to me that Charb and his magazine had little concern for these issues and, by concentrating their ridicule on Muslims with occasional jabs at the Catholic Church, had accommodated themselves to France’s selectively censored environment. Consider the following:
Charlie Hebdo was founded in 1970 after its predecessor magazine, called the Hara-Kiri Hebdo, had been shut down by the French government. Why? It had insulted the memory of the then recently deceased Charles de Gaulle.
If Charlie Hebdo had satirized the Jews in the same way it did the Muslims, its director and staff would have likely been hauled into court and charged with anti-Semitism, expressions of which are illegal in France.
As the political Scientist Anne Norton points out, while “casting itself as the defender of free speech … . the Paris prosecutor’s office is investigating [and subsequently has taken into custody] comedian Dieudonne M’bala for ‘defending terrorism’ after his Facebook post, ‘I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.’” Coulibaly was terrorist involved in the recent Paris violence against Jews.
Charbonnier and his fellows at Charlie Weekly were aware of the first two facts. Thus, Charb was telling the truth when he said that the magazine was not defending free speech. He knew that the Charlie Weekly approach would work only as long as its ridicule was seen as politically acceptable by both most French people and their government. Defaming national heroes or Jews was out of bounds, but ridiculing Muslims was and is acceptable, and maybe that is why they became Charlie Weekly’s preferred target. That, in turn, made the magazine’s staff targets of Muslim extremists.
Part III – The Larger Context
Whatever Stephane Charbonnier’s actual motives and aims, he and his fellow workers at Charlie Weekly died in the course of promoting them.
At that point their motives were co-opted by the French government in what was soon declared as a war of values. On 10 January French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared war against “radical Islam” because its practitioners had attacked “our values, which are universal.”
That last claim is an example of French hubris getting in the way of reality. For better or worse, French values are definitely not universal. They are just another version of culturally determined practices which, in terms of speech, set the limits of what the powers that be find permissible. These limits may be broader than the ones promoted by Islamists but, as we have seen, they are not open-ended.
Nonetheless the illusion of universal values was used by Prime Minister Valls to rally his fellow citizens. On 11 January a reported 2 million French men and women, with some 40 world leaders (most notably half the Israeli cabinet) at their head, marched through Paris to protest the attack on Charlie Weekly. It was said to have been the largest public rally France has seen since the liberation of Paris at the end of World War II.
Most of those who attended this historic rally probably knew little or nothing of the context of the crime they protested. And, while the magazine’s demeaning cartoons might have been the immediate cause of the murders, it was certainly not the only cause. Prime Minister Valls publicly declared war just a few days ago, but in truth France has been acting as if it was at war with Muslims and their values for a very long time.
During their 130-year occupancy of Algeria the French segregated most Muslims from European colonists and adopted policies that undermined the indigenous Arab lifestyle. Since then they haven’t been very welcoming toward Muslim immigrants in France, insisting that they give up their traditional ways and integrate into French culture. However, as riots in 2005 suggested, very little effort has been made on the part of the French government or its people to accommodate such integration. Finally, France has been promoting intervention in Syria. In an ill-advised effort to undermine the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad, French governments (all of which have had a misplaced and certainly racist sense of mission civilisatrice toward Syria) have helped finance and equip Syrian rebels. This threatens to be a repeat of the U.S. mistake made in Afghanistan back in the 1980s, because a good number of these Syrian rebels hate the French (and other Western powers) as much as they do al-Assad.
Part IV – A Vicious Cycle
Under the present circumstances, and by this I mean given long-standing foreign policies of the Western powers, there is no end in sight for terrorist attacks such as that in Paris on 12 January 2015 or, for that matter, in New York on 11 September 2001. They will come again and again because they are ripostes to even more violent actions coming from the West. In other words, what we have going here is a vicious cycle. It began with modern imperialism and has been sustained by frankly counterproductive Western policies in the Muslim world – often in support of brutal Arab dictators and racist and expansionist Israelis. What goes around comes around.
This conclusion is usually dismissed by Western leaders as blaming the (Western) victims. However, to take this position one must ignore the myriad number of victims in the Middle East and North Africa. So, sadly, it really is a matter of which victims one gives priority to: the ones in the Twin Towers or the ones in Gaza; the ones in the offices of Charlie Weekly or the ones killed by French-backed rebels in Syria.Then there are the dead and injured members of the wedding parties that Western drones seem to find with uncanny regularity; the million dead Iraqi civilians; the dead Afghan civilians, the victims of the French-promoted chaos in Libya. There are our victims and there are their victims. It is victims all around and everyone is out for revenge.
Part V – A Way Out?
Is there a way out of this vicious cycle – one that might also uphold a broad and truly universal standard for freedom of speech? Ideally, there is – it is called international law. This is not just any set of laws, but ones that reflect human and civil rights. After World War II there were so many victims of war and terror that international laws and conventions were created to prevent, or at least ameliorate, the practices and policies that victimized millions of innocent people. Updated Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 19 of which supports a broad interpretation of freedom of speech) are examples of these efforts.
These are very good precedents which, in theory, have many endorsers among the world’s nations. Unfortunately, their influence on practice has always been marginal and even that much has been waning. Particularly in the last fifty years these rules of behavior have been undermined by fading memories of the mid-twentieth century horrors that once made them seem so necessary. In the place of those memories has come a resurgence of narrow-minded nationalism, delusional racism, outright bigotry, and increasingly unchecked instances of brutality. Some might say that is the true nature of human beings at work – their fallen nature. However, I don’t believe this. The Geneva Conventions and Universal Declaration of Human Rights are every bit as much a product of human decision making as are the criminal acts they seek to prevent.
So, ultimately, we have to ask what sort of a world we want to live in. If part of that answer is a world without terror attacks, then we have to honestly investigate why those attacks take place. And, if that investigation reveals (as it surely will) that Western popular ignorance and intolerance, and the governmental policies they allow, have helped motivate those attacks, then it behooves us to reconsider our attitudes and actions and set new standards for our behavior. The progressive international laws and conventions cited above can serve us as good standards in such an effort.
Strangely, there may be a perverse correlation between how much blood is shed and our eventual moment of self-examination. It took two world wars to produce such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How much blood has to be shed before we actually honor them?