Category Archives: Politics & Society

Curtain Falling on American Democracy

Christopher Browning

Many of you have read historian Christopher R. Browning‘s essay, The Suffocation of Democracy or at least Chauncey Devega’s interview with him about the essay on sites like Salon or Alternet. Many American readers will be very familiar with what follows. I found it helpful to set out these notes from Browning’s essay and I have (mostly) resisted temptations to intersperse them with any further commentary of my own.

Browning acknowledges broad parallels between what is happening in the United States today with her domestic and foreign courses in the 1920s, and even with 1930s Germany. But the differences are also stark, so stark and dramatic that it is easy to underestimate the seriousness of what is happening in the United States since Obama’s presidency and now under Trump. History rarely repeats, but it does echo and rhyme.

Comparing Foreign Policy

1920s:

  • US was isolationist; shunned League of Nations.
  • High tariffs crippled international trade.
  • Dramatic increase in “income disparity and concentration of wealth at the top”
  • “Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok”
  • Restrictionist immigration policy, bias against Catholics and Jews (Asians already banned by this time).

Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.

I sat in school learning about those post WW2 structures understanding that they were designed to prevent the a repeat of the chaos of the 30s and 40s. I had naively assumed we all knew the reasons for them and would never think of abandoning them.

Gravediggers of Democracy

Hindenburg

Hindenberg had been elected president in 1925 and given emergency powers to defend German democracy in the event of any crisis.

Enter the Great Depression and the “hyperpolarization of German politics”.

Hindenberg began appointing chancellors “who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities”, given the impossibility of forming ruling majorities in the fractured political landscape. Enter the appointment of Hitler.

The traditional conservatives believed they would by able to easily control the popular Hitler. And at the beginning they were getting all they could hope for and much more:

  • military rearmament
  • banning of the Communist Party
  • the suspension of freedom of speech,
  • ….. the press,
  • ….. and assembly
  • ….. and then of parliamentary government itself,
  • a purge of the civil service,
  • and the abolition of independent labor unions.

Paul von Hindenburg had been given powers to protect democracy but abused them so that he saw the end of democracy in Germany.

Browning suggests some sort of analogy with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

On February 13, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. Later that day, McConnell issued a statement indicating that the U.S. Senate would not consider any Supreme Court nominee put forth by President Barack Obama to fill Justice Scalia’s vacated seat. “‘The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,’” McConnell said. On March 16, 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court. Under McConnell’s leadership, Senate Republicans refused to take any action on the Garland nomination. Garland’s nomination expired on January 3, 2017, with the end of the 114th Congress. In January 2017, Republican President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the Court vacancy; Gorsuch’s nomination was confirmed on April 7, 2017. (Wikipedia)

If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.

Result: judiciary can only be appointed when President and Senate belong to same party. Hence separation of powers (executive, judiciary, legislative) is in jeopardy.

Trump’s personal “idiosyncracies” do not detract from the benefits of his rule for those who have made their alliance with him:

  • huge tax cuts for the wealthy,

    McConnell
  • financial and environmental deregulation,
  • the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments,
  • and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care . . .

Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.

Inversion of Previous Political Orientations

Hitler and Mussolini were allowed to take power largely as a consequence of the virulent divisions of the leftist parties:

The Catholic parties . . . liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.

By 1936 in France and Spain

the democratic forces . . . had learned the painful lesson of not uniting against the fascist threat. . . . In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.”

We are familiar with the Trump lines of defence:

First: claim there was no collusion; the claim is a hoax

Second: collusion is not a crime; Russia’s meddling had no effect read more »

I think this is about right…. (accounting for Right populism)

The ascent of Right populism is a direct consequence of the emergence of a profound crisis of political representation all over the West; the politics of identity erected as a new mantra; and the overwhelming power of social media, which allows – in Umberto Eco’s peerless definition – the ascent of “the idiot of the village to the condition of Oracle.”

Escobar, Pepe. 2018. “Future of Western Democracy Being Played Out in Brazil.” Information Clearing House. October 9, 2018. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/50409.htm.

In the same article he refers to a sentence in Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies by Noam Chomsky:

It is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated.

And that reminds me of a set of essays I was required to study many years ago, the Federalist Papers. Number 10 by Madison has always stuck in my memory. In order to guarantee the privileged property status of the wealthy elites against the interests of the larger public it was decided that the ideal form of government would be “representative democracy” over a very large population. The idea was to guard against “participatory” democracy. The “system works” as long as the reality or the illusion can be maintained that the “representatives” represent the public rather than those in possession of the wealth and power.

 

 

Trumpism: No, it’s not the economy that’s to blame

Smith (left) and Hanley — The University of Kansas

I posted on Facebook a link to an article that challenged my own “liberal” spirit of wanting to believe that racists and other bigots were fundamentally fearful and that a sure cure was to be found in strategically administered education and information. I had long believed that one reason people were sometimes fearful was that they believed certain their economic future was being threatened by immigrants, or people on welfare, etc. The article that challenged these hopeful views I have long held was based on an interview with a co-author of a scholarly publication that remains hidden behind a paywall but now someone has forwarded me a copy of that work and I can set out some of its details here. It is

Smith, David Norman, and Eric Hanley. 2018. “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Critical Sociology 44 (2): 195–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920517740615.

The hypothesis that the authors set to test was

that prejudice is fueled more by aggressiveness than by submissiveness, and that it is accompanied by the wish for a domineering leader who will punish the “undeserving.”

Previous studies as a rule had interpreted a desire for authoritarian leaders as an indicator that people loved the idea of submitting and following a domineering figure. Smith and Hanley tested for a new view of authoritarianism — one that derived satisfaction from

forcing moral outsiders to submit. . . Authoritarianism is not the wish to follow any and every authority but, rather, the wish to support a strong and determined authority who will “crush evil and take us back to our true path.” Authorities who reject intolerance are anathema, and must be punished themselves.

(p. 196)

The desire for authoritarian leaders arises not from a submissive spirit but from a wish to see in charge someone who is “punitive and intolerant“.

Authoritarianism and prejudice, two sides of the same coin

Previous studies are cited that appear to make a convincing link between authoritarianism and prejudice. There is a strong statistical correlation between authoritarianism and many forms of bias, “from ethnocentrism to misogyny and homophobia”. It appears that people who support intolerant leaders are not somehow playing down their intolerance because they like something else about them; it looks like they support them because they are intolerant.

17 Variables

The researchers examined 1883 white voters in the 2016 election. Of those 1883 around 52% voted for Trump (979) and of 716 of his supporters (73%) “voted for him enthusiastically”.

The variables they measured were five demographics

  1. gender
  2. education
  3. age
  4. marital status
  5. income

and twelve attitudes. Attitudes towards

  1. Child traits (i.e. desire or propensity for submission to an authoritarian leader)
  2. Domineering leaders
  3. African Americans
  4. Reverse discrimination
  5. Immigrants
  6. Muslims
  7. Women
  8. Personal finances
  9. Health of the economy
  10. Liberalism vs conservatism
  11. General religiosity
  12. Fundamentalism

read more »

So it has come to this?

I have never visited the United States of America and have no plans to do so. (I must add that I have been told by some good American friends that there are certain pockets I would love and where I would feel very comfortable with people I really would like, and that not all Americans are racist, gun wielding, bible-bashing, anti-intellectual, loud-mouth, ignorant conspicuous consumers.) Nor have I ever taken a strong enough interest in sports events to attend major football (rugby, AFL) matches here in Australia. So I cannot seriously compare the following account with what happens here but I would be very surprised (and disappointed) if major Australian sports events were following suit.

To what extent has sports and the military become “increasingly fused” in the US? I ask because of an article by William Astore on TomDispatch about the militarization of sports and the redefinition of patriotism.

Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country. Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of “military appreciation.”) Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball-sanctioned camo cap at MLB’s official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country’s war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as “the homeland.”

These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors. Such ceremonies are invariably touted as natural expressions of patriotism, part of a continual public expression of gratitude for America’s “warfighters” and “heroes.”

. . . . .

Highlighting the other pre-game ceremonies the next night was a celebration of Medal of Honor recipients. I have deep respect for such heroes, but what were they doing on a baseball diamond? The ceremony would have been appropriate on, say, Veterans Day in November.

There is more but you get the idea.

Then there is this:

What started as a post-9/11 drive to get an American public to “thank” the troops endlessly for their service in distant conflicts — stifling criticism of those wars by linking it to ingratitude — has morphed into a new form of national reverence. And much credit goes to professional sports for that transformation. In conjunction with the military and marketed by corporations, they have reshaped the very practice of patriotism in America. 

Now there I do see a synchronicity with Australia. There has never been a repeat of the public insults directed at troops, many conscripts, returning from Vietnam. Now we see what I can’t help thinking is an opposite extreme, equally ignorant: the call for gratitude and honour that must stifle any public questioning of the motives and morality of those who sent them to kill and die. The masters of propaganda learned their lessons well.

I sometimes wonder if what we are witnessing now, but as an outsider it is difficult for me to say too much about America, is a gradual infusion of a type of fascism and militarism by stealth. The ignorant personalities don’t lead the way as they once did; but they do emerge somehow as symptoms or afterthoughts as the tide is changing.

I don’t know. Just thinking, wondering.

Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge

When I come across an article like Aboriginal languages could reveal scientific clues to Australia’s unique past I generally find myself ignoring references to ancient astronauts but clicking down a host of other warrens helping me catch up on tidbits of fascinating insights into aboriginal culture and beliefs that I have missed in the past ten or so years. This one was no different. It led to myths about meteorites and variable stars and another look at the following map of indigenous languages

And that map reminds me of a project I was closely involved with as a metadata and open access repository librarian not very long ago and that I helped get kick started, the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages. Some years back a certain federal government decided that bilingual education in remote aboriginal communities was not a good idea so many text resources in schools that had been painstakingly produced in local indigenous languages were stacked away to gather dust and creepy crawlies or even dumped in bins. In some cases these books were the only written records of the languages in existence. After an academic from Charles Darwin University (CDU) successfully sought funding to rescue as many of these print resources as possible, an irreplaceable resource for both scholarly linguists internationally and local aboriginal communities themselves, the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL) was set up and, since I happened to be working at CDU at the time, I found myself with another very worthy task to assist with.

It was a fascinating project. As a metadata librarian one of my main challenges was investigating ways to facilitate open access to languages and even ideational concepts that had no simple point by point correlation with English; yet more … to find optimal ways to facilitate open access to both linguist scholars and local aboriginal communities.

 

 

What If Core Curriculum for Elementary Civics Education Included Corporate Propaganda?

What if the following had been part of the core curriculum for every junior high school or equivalent in western industrial democracies:

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance:

  • the growth of democracy,
  • the growth of corporate power,
  • and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

There have been two principal aspects to the growth of democracy in this century:

  • the extension of popular franchise (i.e. the right to vote)
  • and the growth of the union movement.

These developments have presented corporations with potential threats to their power from the people at large (i.e. from public opinion) and from organized labour. American corporations have met this threat by learning to use propaganda, both inside and outside the corporation, as an effective weapon for managing governments and public opinion. They have thereby been able to subordinate the expression of democratic aspirations and the interests of larger public purposes to their own narrow corporate purposes.

Corporate propaganda directed outwards, that is, to the public at large, has two main objectives:

  • to identify the free-enterprise system in popular consciousness with every cherished value,
  • and to identify interventionist governments and strong unions (the only agencies capable of checking the complete domination of society by the corporations) with tyranny, oppression and even subversion.

The techniques used to achieve these results are variously called ‘public relations’, ’corporate communications’ and ’economic education’.

Corporate propaganda directed inwards, that is, to employees of the corporation itself, has the purpose of weakening the links between union members and their unions. Techniques employed in the United States for this purpose come under the broad disguise of ‘human relations’, ’employee participation’ and ‘employee communications’.

From the beginning of the century large-scale, professionally organized propaganda campaigns have been a key feature of the political activities of American business.

Carey, Alex. 1997. Taking the Risk out of Democracy : Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. p. 18 (my formatting)

Buddhist Thailand – occasional notes

While speaking of Buddhism in Thailand here are some additional little details:

Signage in a city train. Can you guess what the orange one represents? A Buddhist monk.

I don’t often see monks on public transport and have to confess I felt somewhat outraged when once a monk asked me to move for him. There was a vacant seat next to me but if he took it he would have had to sit between me and a woman. He made it clear to me he had no intention of sitting next to a woman!

Monks are not allowed to touch female members of the opposite sex. And that makes for some interesting gossipy news as per the following that I have taken from a news site:

The monk normally places his hand on a man’s heart for the extra blessing but on a woman’s head for same; but this is a trans man undergoing hormone replacement treatment. As I alluded to earlier there seems to be a more easy acceptance of transgenders here in Thailand than one expects in Australia. (Nonetheless the above picture did cause a bit of a scandal even here.) Recollecting The Federalist article I spoke about earlier, I should add that there is nothing unusual about seeing a prostitute taking a few moments out to offer prayers and offerings at a shrine or temple. No-one there to respond with a command, “Go, and sin no more!”

A more common scene in both streets, shopping complexes, work offices and factories, and in household properties, both inside and outside houses and units, are Buddhist shrines where regulars and passers-by will often be found stopping to pray and leave offerings. People do both in public quite unselfconsciously as if simply filling up at a petrol station or pausing to answer their cell phones.

That photo reminds me of a scene I witnessed this morning. In a busy city street a man had stopped on his bicycle to call to a passing monk. After sorting out the various food items in his bike basket he gave most to the monk who then proceeded to pray for him. Both faced each other, hands held together in our familiar prayer gesture, while the monk prayed at some length. (He had been given a lot of food, after all.) They each then went on their way.

Here are the contents of one of many aisles in a large supermarket. Can you work out what they are? They are ceremonial items for one’s shrine at home or anywhere else where one wants to stop and pray and leave an offering. All part of the weekly grocery shopping list.

And here’s the shrine at the entrance to where I happen to be staying now: Those items on the front table are drinks, one an equivalent of a Thai coke with a straw in it. They are part of what have been left there by passers by stopping to kneel as they pray before moving on with their daily business.

I find it difficult to dislike Buddhism because what I’ve been exposed to is on the whole so non-judgemental compared with Western Christianity. But it does consist of humans and as I think I mentioned previously there are massive public scandals about one outfit accused of all sorts of corruption. Nor do I ever know what to make of seeing monks in a goldsmith’s shop, as I sometimes do. And I cannot help but wonder if behind the public facade there are the same sorts of sexual abuse going on that have finally come to light among Western Christian churches.

 

The Hamas Charter: Context and Significance

“Despite its militant extremism, the Islamist movement has shown that it can be pragmatic.” — Roy, “Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine,” 13

Let’s address head-on the Hamas Charter that denies Israel’s right to exist. (We will leave aside in this post Israel’s Likud Party platform that denies the right for a Palestinian state to ever exist.) I have tried to keep abreast of the makeup and intentions of Hamas for some years but confine myself in this post (or series of posts) on two relatively recent studies:

The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas. I wondered how many lives, both Palestinian and Israeli, have been lost or marred by this refusal to engage with the drivers of Palestinian resistance, of which Hamas is only one facet. I considered the elision of the broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle in most conversations regarding Hamas. Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.

I have struggled to find such certainty in my own study of Hamas, even as I remain unwavering in my condemnation of targeting civilians, on either side.

(Baconi, p. xi)

  • Baconi, Tareq. 2018. Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Caridi, Paola. 2012. Hamas: From Resistance to Government. New York: Seven Stories Press.

The Beginning

The Hamas charter, adopted in August 1988, made clear the Islamist values of Hamas, declaring that the Quran was its constitution and the land of Palestine part of Islam’s sacred territory that could never be surrendered to non-Muslims.

A few months after its creation, in August 1988, Hamas issued its charter, “The Charter of Allah: The Platform of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).” This document introduced the movement and outlined its mission, values, and goals. It defined Hamas’s motto as “God is its goal; The messenger [the Prophet Mohammed] is its Leader; The Quran is its Constitution; Jihad is its methodology ; and Death for the Sake of God is its most coveted desire.”

(Baconi, p. 21)

On August 18, 1988, Hamas published its charter, the Mithaq, its most debated, cited, and condemned document and one that was often used as a political bargaining tool. Article 13 expressly states that “the initiatives, what is called a ‘peaceful solution’ and ‘interna­tional conferences’ to resolve the Palestinian problem, are contrary to the ideology of the Islamic Resistance Movement, because giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of religion. The national­ism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion; it edu­cates its members on this, and they perform jihad to raise the banner of God over their nation.”

(Caridi, p. 101)

Who wrote the Charter?

The charter was a rambling work of religious and antisemitic slogans put together by an aged cleric a generation removed from the contemporary leadership of Hamas. The charter was never debated.

According to the most credible account, the text of Hamas’s Charter was penned by Abdel Fattah al-Dukhan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s older generation in Gaza, who was among those present at the December 9, 1987, meeting at Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s house. Nearly the same age as Yassin and a refugee from the Ashkelon area . . . . It was therefore neither one of the new leadership’s ideologues nor one of the future leaders of the Diaspora who wrote the Mithaq. The hand that wrote the foundational Charter, the militant text that over the years became a political manifesto that Hamas itself never debated, belonged to a teacher of fifty years, a preacher from one of Gaza’s refugee camps.

(Caridi, p. 101)

A nationalist-religious charter

According to the charter Palestine is a “waqf” or Islamic land until Judgment Day and that can never be surrendered to non-Muslims.

Through its charter, Hamas made clear its refusal to recognize the State of Israel. The document stressed the indivisibility of the land of “Historic Palestine,” referring to the land that constituted the British Mandate, located between the Eastern Mediterranean and the River Jordan, over which Israel was established. Hamas defined this territory as “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until Judgement Day.”107

(Baconi, p. 23)

The Charter’s preamble speaks of the destruction of Israel, but through one of the three citations that appear at the beginning of the text rather than by means of a discussion. The citation is taken from Hassan al-Banna, who in 1948 said, “Israel will grow and will remain strong until Islam will eliminate it, just as it eliminated what came before it.”4 Paradoxically, however, it is not so much these words of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood that created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to changing the Mithaq, but Article 11, which defines Palestine as an Islamic waqf, and therefore a land that can not be subject to the disposal of men, but rather “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until the Judgment Day.”’ Thus, adds the Charter’s author, “no one may renounce all, or even part of it.”6

(Caridi, p. 102)

Hamas leaders respond to calls to change its charter

Hamas’s secular rival, the PLO, had always bound itself to the Palestine National Congress’s charter that likewise declared its national duty to be “the liberation of Palestine” and “the elimination of Zionism in Palestine”. Since the PNA’s charter did not prevent Israel from negotiating with the PLO Hamas leadership have dismissed Israel’s objections to its charter as an excuse. They believe that Israel is most perturbed by Hamas success in popular elections in Gaza and that this is its real reason for refusing to negotiate.

Hamas leaders insist they want to avoid the mistake of the PLO who, they believe, gave in to Israel too cheaply.

According to sources inside Hamas, it was on this article that internal debate had in recent years focused in order to try to allow what is, after all, a pragmatic organization to move beyond the formal impasse that had bogged it down. Hamas’s Mithaq, after all, simply echoed what had already been said in a nationalist vein in the Palestinian National Charter, approved by the Palestinian National Congress on July 11, 1968, according to which “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty . . . and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.”Eliminating that phrase, just like the other anti-Zionist elements in the Palestinian National Charter, was not the sine qua non condition for the negotiations between the PLO and Israel that led to the Oslo Accords. In practice, the question of its elimination was tackled only in 1996, after the PNA had already been established, and even then it was left formally unresolved.

The history of the Palestinian National Charter has been taken as an example by many Hamas leaders to argue that their Mithaq has been used by Western governments as an alibi and by Israel to avoid contact with the Islamist Movement, especially after its decision to take part in electoral politics in 2005.

. . . . For the Islamist leadership, however, recanting even parts of the Mithaq meant recognizing Israel without having obtained a reciprocal legitimization and, according to many among that same leadership, without having obtained an equally formal recognition not only of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinians as a nation. From a strictly political point of view, Hamas has always feared repeating the mistakes made by Fatah and the PLO, who gave away too much to Israel without receiving anything in exchange. On the contrary, during the life of the PNA and during the negotiations between the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 2000 talks at Camp David, Hamas had always opposed the stances of the PLO and of the PNA, which it considered lax. According to Islamist leaders, if they had a similarly flexible negotiating stance, it would lead to making significant concessions without substantial and tangible results in return.

(Caridi, pp. 102f)

In late 1988, a few months after Hamas issued its charter, Yasser Arafat convened the exiled Palestinian leadership in Algiers. . . . [Arafat] declared the independence of the State of Palestine and invoked international resolutions that demonstrated the PLO’s willingness to accept a state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Arafat’s declaration signaled the PLO’s readiness to concede the 78 percent of Palestinian land that had been lost in 1948 and willingness to fulfill the American demand of renouncing terrorism. This signaled to the United States that the PLO was ready to enter into a negotiated settlement with Israel, prompting the administration of President Ronald Reagan to open a dialogue with the PLO in late 1988.

. . . . The PLO’s concessions were anathema for Hamas, whose charter proclaimed that “jihad for the liberation of Palestine is obligatory.” No other path for liberation was viable. The movement dismissed diplomatic efforts as contrary to its ideology, primarily because they were premised on the condition of conceding parts of Palestine, but also because Hamas believed they were unlikely to serve Palestinian interests.

(Baconi, p. 23)

Hamas evolves, reflects on its “worst enemy”

“three people sat around a table and wrote it” . . .  “Palestine cannot be considered a waqf
read more »

A Passing Note on Thailand

While waiting here in KL for my flight to Thailand I have been catching up with rss feeds from all over the place and one stood out as timely and appropriate: What The West Can Learn From Thailand About Loving One’s Heritage by Casey Chalk. Unfortunately it’s from The Federalist site whose articles I normally find way too “conservative” for my own tastes, but it does make some substantial points about Thailand that are worth noting.

Since the story of the Thai students trapped in a remote cave hit the international news wire, observers have been fascinated with the children’s expression of Thai religious piety and customs. Videos released by the Thai navy show the boys offering the “wai,” a traditional greeting where the palms are pressed together. Images that accompany related news stories often show large groups of Thais, including their classmates, offering Buddhist prayers for the stranded children.

The first time I was in Bangkok and greeted by two Thai nieces with the wai I gaffed by wai-ing back. It is not appropriate, I quickly learned, for the senior to wai the junior, or certainly not to bow in doing so. There are all sorts of rules about that.

Tourists visiting Thailand are usually taken aback by the signs prominently displayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport and on billboards along the highway into downtown Bangkok. One such billboard reads: “It’s wrong to use Buddha as decoration or tattoo. Means no respect. Don’t buy or sell Buddha.” Another sign asserts: “Welcome to Buddha Land. It’s wrong to buy or use Buddha symbol as merchandise, decoration, tattoo or to own Buddha head. Disrespect to Buddha is wrong by law.”

Thais are a very conservative people and the Buddhist religion runs deep. It is customary for boys to spend time as monks just as it is customary for young men to do “national service” in some other countries. I find Buddhism easier to stomach than western “Churchianity” but don’t think Buddhism is all the same here. There are serious corruption charges under way against certain Buddhist monks under way. Some monks come across as plain greedy. But those appear to be the extremes. As usual there is the vast middle of normality and by-and-large respectability.

Families are bound by values Westerners would regard as old-fashioned. It is not universally accepted, for example, that young people live together before marriage. For a young person to do so could well cause deep pain, even offence, to many parents.

Reverence for the Thai monarchy has been bound up with Buddhist conventions, too. I can discuss that side of things another time in more depth. Not everything connected with that question is a good thing.

Oh yes — when you go to a movie here in Thailand you will experience just before the main feature the playing of national anthem and a film of the king. Everyone stands, of course.

Casey Chalk talks about the infamous sex tourism but it is very easy to live and get around in Thailand without seeing that side of things at all.

I’m not sure I’d think of certain Western differences from Thai culture as “losses” as Chalk goes some way to suggesting. The “traditional ways” have their own challenges. There’s way too much poverty here and I can’t justify the status quo by appealing to (or hiding behind) “unifying traditions”.


Added note some time after original posting:

It doesn’t really work to compare values or social attitudes between different cultures as if there can be neat correspondences. Example: I’ve talked above about the ‘conservatism’ of the Thais but I would despite the West’s gains in acknowledgement of gay rights I still would not expect to walk into a very ordinary hairdresser shop in a major conservative-area suburban-type shopping mall and be attended by a ladyboy.


 

Looking for Trouble: Two Views

Interesting to compare two different responses to Southern Lauren‘s attempt to enter a Muslim area she opposes. Each links to a different report of the event. (I had thought Southern had been denied a visa to enter Australia; I’ve obviously been out of touch with the latest developments.)

Jerry Coyne’s Comment P.Z. Myers’ Comment
A darling of extreme right-wingers everywhere . . .  there’s no doubt that she’s a bigot. Nevertheless, she has the right to speak and the right to go anywhere she wants in public. In this encounter, though, she wants to enter to a “no go” part of Sydney, Australia inhabited largely by Muslims. There’s no doubt she wanted to stir up trouble. . . . The thing is, she has a right to do that; and, indeed, calling public attention to Islamic homophobia or sharia law has its beneficial side. . . . I emphatically defend Southern’s right to say and do what she wants in public. . . . [A]n Aussie police inspector . . . has “grave concerns that she might cause a breach of the peace” because the area is “highly religious”:===. . . . [H]er counterarguments are sound: any “breach of the peace” would be the fault of those who would cause the trouble, not Southern. . . . . Southern did her usual schtick of seeking out what she calls “no-go zones” to show how racist they are, as if she thinks racism is a bad thing. So she walks into an area with a high proportion of Muslims with camera and sound guy in tow, making a little bit of a spectacle of herself, and notices how suspiciously people are looking at her (surprise!) and that some people are yelling in Arabic (oh my god), and starts to head down a street to a mosque to stir up some real juicy footage. She’s stopped by a policeman, who tells her no: he knows that she’s there to provoke trouble, so he tells her that she may not go there. He also informs her that local white people have no trouble coexisting in this neighborhood — making it clear that the problem isn’t with respectful citizens, it’s specifically with her and her actions. . . . She knows nothing.

The Crimea-Russia Connection: Historical Overview

“Grabrich” recently reminded me of an excellent study on the background to the Ukraine crisis today. I quote one section from early in the book setting out an overview of the historical background to Russia’s involvement in Crimea. I have added hyperlinks and broken up the paragraph for easier reading.

From RussianArtDealer.com

The Crimean peninsula is the heartland of Russian nationhood. It was here in Khersones that Prince Vladimir adopted Orthodoxy as the official religion of the people of Rus.

Following the Mongol invasion, the Crimean Khanate ruled the peninsula from 1441, whose territories at one point encompassed a large part of the northern Black Sea littoral.

From 1736 Russia started its push to take over the region, prompted in particular by the desire to put an end to the raids on the Slavic parts to the north.

Catherine the Great’s push against the Ottoman Empire saw Crimea occupied by Russian forces in 1783, and on 2 February 1784 it formally entered the Russian Empire as Taurida Oblast.

In turn, the Tatar population now faced successive waves of deportation, including in response to the threat from Napoleon in 1812, when they were sent to Siberia, and then in 1855, towards the end of the Crimean War, when they were branded as enemy agents and tens of thousands were sent to Turkey.

From the 1860s the imperial authorities launched a new wave of deportations, accompanied by attempts to Russify the northern Black Sea region.

The worst deportation was Stalin’s, on 18–20 May 1944. The whole population, some 230,000, including 40,000 who had served with distinction in the Red Army, were sent to Siberia and Central Asia, with at least 100,000 expiring en route of hunger and thirst. They had been accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, but given the purges of the 1930s, which had wiped out much of the Crimean Tatar elite, surprisingly few (some 2,000) joined ‘defence teams’ rather than be sent to work in Germany.

Tatars now make up 13 per cent of the Crimean population, whereas before the Russian occupation of 1783 they comprised 80 per cent.

In 1954 the region was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction, a decision that was contested from the first, above all because Russians made up the majority of the population.

The 2001 census revealed that 1.45 million (57 per cent) out of a total population of 2 million claimed to be Russians, 576,000 Ukrainians and 245,000 Tatars, while some 77 per cent were registered as native Russian-speakers.

It was the return of Crimea to Russia in March 2014 that transformed the Ukrainian crisis into a major European confrontation (see Chapter 5).

Sakwa, Richard. 2015. Frontline Ukraine Crisis in the Borderlands. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015. pp. 12f
The Crimean Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysaray, by Carlo Bossoli

Understanding Hamas in Gaza

Tareq Baconi and cover of his newly published book

I have read four studies of Hamas and have this evening begun to update my information by beginning my fifth, Hamas Contained : The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance by Tareq Baconi. So far I have only read the Preface and already I wish everyone could read it and follow up by speaking out and doing their little bits to spread light on a world that is too often lost behind distortions of reality.

Sections of the Preface that hit home with me:

The simplistic binaries that frame conversations of Palestinian armed struggle evoke the condescension expressed by colonial overlords toward the resistance of indigenous peoples. “Palestinians have a culture of hate,” commentators blast on American TV screens. “They are a people who celebrate death.” These familiar accusations, quick to roll off tongues, are both highly effective at framing public discourse and insulting as racist epithets.

Bolded emphasis in all quotations is my own.

I have often found discussions about Hamas very difficult so when I read the following I recognized something immediately:

The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas.

Totally absent from any discussion, it seems, is any serious consciousness of the “broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle”.

Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.

Oh yes. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. The simplistic paradigms that have always guaranteed the perpetuation of ignorance and suffering.

Tareq Baconi explains that what he attempts to do in the book is to

peel back all the layers that have given rise to the present dynamic of vilifying and isolating Hamas, and with it, of making acceptable the demonization and suffering of millions of Palestinians within the Gaza Strip. . . . This book works to advance our knowledge of Hamas by elucidating the manner in which the movement evolved over the course of its three decades in existence, from 1987 onward. Understanding Hamas is key to ending the denial of Palestinians their rights after nearly a century of struggle for self-determination.

At the end of his Preface Baconi discusses the wide ranging archival and other sources he has used for this purpose.

Story 1

Personal anecdotes have the potential to encapsulate hundreds of words of analysis. One discussion was with a young boy that took place about a year after the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza:

The conversation was during the Islamic month of Ramadan in 2015, and everyone was sluggish from the June heat. I asked him about the school year he had just finished and whether he was happy to be on holiday. He shrugged. “Sixth grade was fine,” he said, “a bit odd.” He was in Grade A and he used to look forward to playing football against Grade B. That past year, though, the school administration had merged several grades together. The classes were crowded and the football games less enjoyable. I wondered aloud to the boy why the school administration had done that. Annoyed that I was not engaging with the issue at hand, that of football politics, he answered in an exasperated tone. “Half of the Grade A kids had been martyred the summer before,” he snapped. The kids who had survived no longer filled an entire classroom.

Story 2

Another conversation with a Gazan boy (driving his taxi) who was about to graduate from his final school year:

I asked him what he wanted to do postgraduation — always a fraught topic in a place like Gaza. He said he “was thinking of joining the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,” Hamas’s military wing. I had seen posters throughout the city and on mosque walls announcing that registration was open for their summer training camps. A few of his friends had apparently signed up. Why, I asked. He replied that he wanted to “fight the Jews.” He’d never seen one in real life, he added, but he had seen the F-16s dropping the bombs.

Almost a decade into the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which had begun in earnest in 2007, “Jew,” “Israeli,” and “F-16” had become synonymous. A few years prior, this boy’s father would have been able to travel into Israel, to work as a day laborer or in menial jobs. While it would have been structurally problematic, that man would have nonetheless interacted with Israeli Jews, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, in a nonmilitarized way. This is no longer the case. One could see in my driver how the foundation was laid for history to repeat itself. Resistance had become sacred, a way of living in which he could take a great deal of pride serving his nation.

Reality is complex

Here is why I wish many people would read this book: read more »

Tiananmen Square (My Uncomfortable Visit)

In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. It was an eerie, haunting experience not simply because of knowing what had happened there 16 years before but because of the pressure to remain silent and forget.

From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”.

Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released last year, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed. . . .

Over 1 million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s rulers made the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of Beijing.

ABC Report

Only a year earlier we had been treated to high-tech 3-D visuals of Tiananmen Square as a proud jewel of the Chinese exhibit at Brisbane’s World Entertainment Expo.

The event “never happened” according to Chinese government and educational institutions.

Born in 1990, Ming says he never even heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre until he was at university.

He happened to overhear his roommates talking about the so-called June Fourth Incident — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.

It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families, including Ming’s.

In 2005 soldiers stood guard at key points to enforce …. I’m not sure what. Presumably the curfew: no-one was allowed there after daylight hours. Possibly against large groups or persons they deemed suspicious from approaching. It remained a vast empty space broken in one direction by Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and queues of people slowly moving past his embalmed body. I felt very conspicuous stepping far away from that shrine to the vast empty expanse of the rest of the square that particular afternoon, with only a handful of others in the area, and with my movements being watched by the many young guards.

What agonized me was the failure of my Chinese hosts to indicate the slightest awareness of why I might have been interested in exploring further there at all after I had completed the obligatory look at Mao’s embalmed corpse. There was the usual talk of old history, of Mao, of the architectural features. . . . I finally burst it out, though nervously, softly: What did they think of what happened …. I don’t think I had the chance to finish my sentence. One girl butted in with a tense, anxious tone (or was that my imagination?) to tell me that yes, some bad people had been there at one time and how soon afterwards soldiers came to her family’s house (far away from Beijing) to ask about her. I think she had been a student at that time. I was told that her parents and neighbours assured the soldiers that she was a “good girl” and was not mixed up with any of those very bad hooligans causing some very bad trouble in Beijing. The soldiers, she told me proudly, went away smiling having been assured by parents and neighbours that she was, as they said, a “good girl”.

The reaction to my question left me in no doubt that I had seriously gaffed. It was not my place to raise such a question about such a “bad thing” that happened so long ago. Was I some sort of sympathizer with “bad people” for even thinking and wanting to ask about that horrible “forgotten” time?

That was the end of my visit to the vast and — except for the guards and the people immediately surrounding Mao’s mausoleum — practically empty Tiananmen Square.

Photo: Guo Jian’s artwork The Square. It’s a model of Tiananmen Square covered in pork mince. (Supplied: Guo Jian)

The Day Another Race Likened Me to an Ape

Photo from flickr

My RSS feeds tell me that there’s a scandal in the U.S. right now over a prominent personality tweeting a comparison of an African American advisor to Obama with an ape.

I had my own small taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a comparison a few years back when I was visiting China. It happened when I was somewhere in the middle of the mainland (certainly away from coastal regions like Shanghai and Beijing where foreigners were not an uncommon sight), in Wuhan province I think. I was sitting with my Chinese friend in a large and crowded cafeteria and was slightly amused to notice that so many of the other diners appeared to be focusing their eyes on me. I assumed the reason was that I was the only white Caucasian in the room. I could not help wondering how often any of these people had ever seen a non-Chinese person “in the flesh” before. I mentioned my thoughts to my Chinese friend whose reply took me aback: I was told they were staring at my hairy legs and arms; I was told that they were thinking that I looked like a monkey.

I confess that that comparison took me aback for a moment. I laughed, but something deep down inside me was not laughing. Did I not belong to a race that historically compared others to subhuman species? That’s what “we” did to “them” — what was the real source of the ugly feelings I was feeling deep down inside at that moment?

That was the first time I had been in a country where I was the racial minority figure and being compared with a wild animal. In Australia I had become accustomed to hearing of certain ignorant whites comparing other races, including Asians, to a species less than human. Here I was in China getting a small taste of the tables being turned.

I was able to laugh it off, though, because I had no reason to suspect there was anything more than innocent curiosity and analogy in the minds of my Chinese neighbours. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I suspected they all thought I was literally a less evolved animal.