Category Archives: Politics & Society

At present this includes posts on history of Zionism and modern Israel and Palestine as well as current events. Continue this setup? What of other histories? Adjust name of category? Currently includes Islamism (distinct from Islam) as an ideology of terrorism. Also currently includes Islamophobia and hostile denunciations of Islam — but see the question on Islam in Religion and Atheism.

Did the Saudis Talk Trump Out of War with Iran? — or am I just dreaming?

It sure looked like Trump was going all out to provoke a war with Iran — or maybe he was too stupid to think through the consequences of assassinating Qassem Soleimani [link is to Vridar post on QS’s bio] that far in advance. Then came this tweet:

And that tweet seems to have been forced out of him only after the Saudi’s themselves announced the meeting: see White House Press Association Rebukes Trump Administration for Secret Saudi Meeting in Oval Office.

The Saudis are having a hard enough time with the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen and they recently saw how vulnerable their oil depots were to drone strikes. Anyway, Trump suddenly started talking of de-escalation and allowed the Iranians to respond so long as they gave warning so that no lives would be lost.

U.S. and Israeli hawks have long been itching for war with Iran, and that war would have been a perfect deflection from the impeachment mess. One can’t help but wonder what was discussed at that meeting with Trump and the Saudis.

Or am I just being alt-conspiratorial?

One thing is for sure, though. Obama managed with international support to “guarantee” Iran’s security if they gave up on a nuclear weapons program. I somehow find it inconceivable that Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon relatively soon. Trump’s action seems to have made that almost inevitable — so it seems when I read Dana Kennedy’s article in DCReport.org: The Suleimani Assassination May Set Back U.S. Intelligence Gathering: Striking the General Revealed NSA Capability to Spy on Top Iranians and Their Nuclear Weapons Program. After all, Trump does have a history of letting little secrets slip. Terrorists have learned not to use cell phones when they communicate; no doubt (given Dana Kennedy’s article) Iranians have now learned a similar lesson with respect to a (surely revamped) nuclear weapons program.

Iranian leadership would surely be even more madly insane than Trump if they don’t go all out to get a nuclear weapon now. How else could they “guarantee” their security from invasion or “shock and awe” bombing?

Meanwhile, the U.S. troops who continue to occupy the country they “liberated” have been obliged to turn away from their stated goal of “mopping up the remnants” of ISIS and standing guard against Iranian proxy attacks.

A nuclear-armed Iran (may not be such a bad thing for the immediate future), a resurgent ISIS — even a restored caliphate?, an inevitable eventual withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan and Iraq — unless, perhaps, the Saudis change their minds and offer to flatter Trump if he changes his mind once more on Iran.

But I’m only musing. I have no idea. A mere citizen who tries to keep on top of the news and what’s happening, or seems to be happening.

Ammunition for Climate Change Deniers (The Facts Are Bad Enough)

I posted a familiar looking photo in “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs” that I have now replaced with one of the current situation. It reminded me of scenes I had seen in another bushfire year and I thought, “Here we go again” – but no, I have learned that that photo was recycled from a 2013 bushfire in Tasmania.

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And now there is this infographic circulating on Twitter, Reddit and everywhere else, I guess. Infographic.tv awarded it one of “the best”. The critical comment comes from cupboard.com.

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Here is my own “infographic” based on the same data. Bear in mind I am no mathematician so more mathematically endowed readers are welcome to offer corrections:

California —  AmazonSiberiaAustralia
Bottom row — the scales as depicted in the infographic, all compared with California. Top row — a truer representation according to the figures (my rough calculation).

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Certain maps hit home as definitely misleading from the moment I saw them. They do not represent what is happening now. They “point” to areas where we have had bushfires since September 1919, and the “pinpointing” is with a thick marker pen rather than a precision pen.

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Here’s a more realistic satellite image of where the most serious threats are at the moment:

From space.com

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There are other more informative maps for residents, too, on the various state fire service sites. These are bad enough:

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Left: Today’s map from NSW Rural Fire Service.
Right: Qld Rural Fire Service current map

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I can see the climate change deniers (who include our current political leaders in the pockets of the coal industry and Pentecostal faith) eventually standing up for Murdoch’s media coverage as some more “realistic” perspective:

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From theguardian.com

 

Meanwhile, a little to the north-west of Australia, another historical record . . .

The Indonesian climatological agency has deemed the New Year’s floods “one of the most extreme” rainfall events since records began in 1866. —  Max Walden, ABC reporter

I thought cloud seeding was meant to increase the likelihood of rainfall. I learn here that it can also be used to try to prevent rainfall:

Indonesia tries cloud seeding as flood death toll rises to 46

Home to some 30 million people, greater Jakarta is highly vulnerable to floods — worsened by being the fastest-sinking city on Earth.

Since the 1970s, parts of Jakarta have sunk more than four metres, at a rate of up to 25 centimetres a year.

Modelling from researchers at the Bandung Institute of Technology has shown that 95 per cent of northern Jakarta could be underwater by 2050.

The megacity’s severe environmental problems have motivated Mr Widodo’s Government to relocate Indonesia’s capital to Borneo, a plan it announced last year.

Walden, Max. “Indonesia Tries Cloud Seeding as Flood Death Toll Rises to 46.” Text. ABC News, January 4, 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-04/indonesia-to-try-cloud-seeding-as-death-toll-rises-to-46/11840786.

Who was Qassem Soleimani?

 

Time once more to pull out my copy of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Afshon Ostovar). I’ve referred to it a few times now:

It’s first reference to Qassem Soleimani is in its Introduction:

Also significant were placards in honor of Qassem Soleimani—the architect of the IRGC’s [= Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp] foreign operations. Soleimani earned the reputation as a savvy strategist during the US occupation of post-Saddam Iraq, during which he organized an effective counterweight to American influence through the development of a Shiite militant clientage. This work made Soleimani—often referred to with the honorific “Hajj”—a revered figure within IRGC ranks. He was considered the one most directly responding to Iran’s grievances by confronting its enemies on the battlefield. The supreme leader even referred to Soleimani as a “living martyr” for his efforts—placing him iwithin the pantheon of Shiite-Iranian heroes. As one sign proclaimed, “We are all Hajj Qassem!” (p. 3. Highlighting is mine in all quotations)

and

Ostovar explains Quds: Quds Force is a … selective organization. As its name implies, the Quds Force—Quds means Jerusalem in Persian and Arabic—was originally conceived as a division that would lead the IRGC’s efforts against Israel. However, its mandate has grown over the years to encompass all of the IRGC’s foreign covert and military operations. Its members are some of the best trained in the IRGC, having received advanced instruction in areas such as explosives, espionage, tradecraft, and foreign languages. There is no accurate reporting of the Quds Force’s size, but estimates generally peg its membership between five thousand and twenty thousand individuals. The primary function of Quds is to develop and assist allied armed groups outside of Iran. It helps train, equip, and fund a variety of organizations across the greater Middle East. This work has brought it into close partnerships with groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the National Defense Forces in Syria, the Badr Organization in Iraq, and Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis) in Yemen.

In Iraq . . . Quds chief Qassem Soleimani was able to subvert the influence of the United States by building up a network of pro-Iranian, anti-American Shiite militant groups. These groups fought American and allied troops, and secured powerful positions in Iraq after US combat forces withdrew in 2011. They remain one of the most powerful constituencies in Iraq and have made Iran a dominant player in that country. (p. 6)

After 9/11 Iran was prepared to cooperate with the United States in its war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, supplying the U.S. with the detailed location of Taliban and Al Qaeda targets and advising on the best plans for destroying them. Soleimani was said to have been “very pleased” with the cooperation, but then came the Bush led betrayal of Iran and Soleimani’s assistance. The details are posted at

Iran, Iran, if only we had been friends
(2018-09-24)

(I seem to recall another recent betrayal — this time of an Iranian ally that also had a strong record of helping the U.S. defeat ISIS — by Trump.)

Moving on to the period of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. . . .

Unable to achieve his goals [to crush the Iraqi Shiite militia opposing the Sunni dominated government] militarily, Al-Maliki was forced to send a team to negotiate a ceasefire with the Basra groups in Qom, Iran. The man behind the deal, as first reported by McClatchy’s Leila Fadel, was Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani. Part of the agreement included an offer by Maliki to absorb Badr Organization militants into Iraq’s security forces—a move that further entwined pro-Iranian and IRGC-linked elements with the Iraqi government.

Soleimani’s role in the Basra ceasefire highlighted Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. It also signaled Soleimani’s emergence as a powerbroker. Recognizing his own rising stock, in May 2008 Soleimani sent a letter to his “counterpart” in Iraq, US General David Petraeus, suggesting that the two meet to discuss Iraqi security. Petraeus dismissed the letter, but Soleimani’s message was clear: Iran had amassed considerable power in Iraq and would have to be engaged for stability in that country to be achieved. That event was the high watermark of Iranian influence in Iraq during the first half-decade of the US occupation. (p. 174)

Responding to the Collapse of the Soviet Union and Emergence of the Arab Spring

The potential for a fundamental political reorientation in the Middle East was at its most acute since the fall of the Soviet Union. The region was going to change. How and to what end was the question. The Islamic Republic saw peril and opportunity. As Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani explained in May 2011, the unfoldment of the Arab Spring was as critical to the future of the revolution as the war against Saddam. “Today, Iran’s defeat or victory will not be determined in Mehran or Khorramshahr, but rather, our borders have spread. We must witness victories in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.” In order to safeguard its interests and counter its enemies, Tehran had to look beyond its borders. If it failed to help determine the future course of the Middle East, Iran’s enemies would be the beneficiaries.

Soleimani was not speaking rhetorically. He was expressing an evolving view in the IRGC that it not only had the responsibility but the ability to advance Iran’s agenda outside its borders. The IRGC had learned with the fall of Saddam that it could successfully exploit power vacuums for strategic gains. Syria’s civil war and the war against ISIS in Iraq were new entryways for the organization. Under the direction of Soleimani, the IRGC led Iran’s campaigns of assistance in both countries. These were in large part strategic efforts designed to protect Iran’s allies and equities from hostile forces. But their resilience was rooted in religion. The IRGC framed its involvement in both countries in religious terms. In Syria, the IRGC was defending the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab—a mosque built near Damascus that Shiites believe houses the remains of Zaynab bint Ali, a sister of the Imam Husayn and revered hero in Shiism—and in Iraq, it was safeguarding the holy shrines of the imams and the Shia population. As the IRGC saw it, these conflicts were part of a larger war waged by Sunni Arab states and the West against Iran and its allies. It was a war intrinsically against Shiism and the family of the Prophet. To defeat the jihadist scourge and its Sunni Arab benefactors, the IRGC mobilized pro-Iranian, pro-Shiite supporters in Syria and Iraq. These relationships helped Iran advance its agenda and expand its influence. They also intensified sectarian hatreds. (p. 205)

The Critical Importance of Syria

read more »

“Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs”

Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames . . . Photo by Allison Marion of her son Finn; see ABC News article: Victoria bushfire evacuee . . . .

A novelist has the words to best describe it:

Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.

The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.

The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.

Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more.

All this, and peak fire season is only just beginning.

Flanagan, Richard. 2020. “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide.” The New York Times, January 4, 2020, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/opinion/australia-fires-climate-change.html. (With thanks to the reader who sent me a link to this article.)

And our faith-infused prime minister, Scott Morrison, as per one of the videos posted in the previous post, tells us that we have always had to face disasters and challenges of one kind or another, and this is no different, and we will, as we have beaten other challenges, likewise rise up and beat this one. He is not talking about climate change. He is talking about the historic catastrophic fire season in Australia as if its a one-off.

After yesterday’s post another video emerged that shows the PM getting a bit of humiliating flack for a change.

In my previous post I dwelt on the PM’s faith perspective. I think it’s fair to say he does not believe in evolution nor that the Bible has anything to say about climate change. Richard Flanagan’s article reminded me of another more material factor that attracted an inordinate amount of attention in the last election:

In no small part Mr. Morrison owes his narrow election victory last year to the coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer, who formed a puppet party to keep the Labor Party — which had been committed to limited but real climate-change action — out of government. Mr. Palmer’s advertising budget for the campaign was more than double that of the two major parties combined. Mr. Palmer subsequently announced plans to build the biggest coal mine in Australia.

Clive Palmer has a deep record of dishonesty in business and with clients that surely rivals Donald Trump’s. The poster above shows how attached he was to imitating his U.S. alter ego in that election campaign.

Palmer himself had no chance of becoming PM but his votes lent support to the Scott Morrison government. Who is Scott Morrison? He is acceptable to many Australians as a PM because he is said to be “authentic”. Yes, he’s a “daggy dad” and even a pentecostal, but Australians are a tolerant lot and can accept neighbours down the street who are like that. We have proven we are just as likely to vote for atheists and, god-forbid, unmarried women, as prime ministers. What is Morrison’s political background? I have never liked him for the reason given by Flanagan:

Mr. Morrison made his name as immigration minister, perfecting the cruelty of a policy that interns refugees in hellish Pacific-island camps, and seems indifferent to human suffering. Now his government has taken a disturbing authoritarian turn, cracking down on unions, civic organizations and journalists. Under legislation pending in Tasmania, and expected to be copied across Australia, environmental protesters now face up to 21 years in jail for demonstrating.

“Australia is a burning nation led by cowards,” wrote the leading broadcaster Hugh Riminton, speaking for many. To which he might have added “idiots,” after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack blamed the fires on exploding horse manure.

Such are those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.

Most Australians want serious action on climate change. I’m keeping a close eye on Extinction Rebellion (Australian branch) with a view to contributing actively to that movement — I took special notice of them at the same time as Morrison who wanted to limit their ability to make a public impact with their activism. Scott Morrison and his party appear to be firmly indebted to contributions from the coal industry. I understand that the opposition party has also begun taking significant donations from that industry.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchiks were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern. In Australia today, a political establishment, grown sclerotic and demented on its own fantasies, is facing a monstrous reality which it has neither the ability nor the will to confront.

Mr. Morrison may have a massive propaganda machine in the Murdoch press and no opposition, but his moral authority is bleeding away by the hour. On Thursday, after walking away from a pregnant woman asking for help, he was forced to flee the angry, heckling residents of a burned-out town. A local conservative politician described his own leader’s humiliation as “the welcome he probably deserved.”

As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis?

Evacuees at Mallacoota Wharf (Jan 2020). Picture: Twitter/Bluefestblues Source:Twitter — From news.com.au

 

P.S. I recall the days when an election was about advancing a more humane, just and sustainable society. Today, the debates seem to have very little imagination beyond the theme of “economic growth”, led, of course, by mining giants et al.

 


Flanagan, Richard. 2020. “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide.” The New York Times, January 4, 2020, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/opinion/australia-fires-climate-change.html.


 

 

Apocalypse Now: Rapture Into Denial for Pentecostal Leaders

I’m wondering if any Australians who comment here from time to time have been affected by the bushfires that seem to have been with us and only getting worse for months now. What’s happening now is horrendous and unlike anything else I’ve ever heard of, and I know Indonesia, the Amazon, Africa, the United States Arctic regions and god knows where else have been experiencing similar. I am finding it hard to get my head to imagine the following scenario in which a young firefighter was killed. No-one would think this possible . . .

A young volunteer firefighter and soon-to-be father was killed when a “freakish weather event” lifted his fire truck off the ground, the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) says.

Samuel McPaul, 28, died yesterday after his truck flipped in the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic, 70 kilometres east of Albury near the NSW-Victoria border.

NSW RFS district manager Superintendent Patrick Westwood said Mr McPaul was “doing everything right” when tragedy struck.

He and two others had been mustering cattle caught in a paddock on flat ground.

“The crew decided to move away from that area and, quite unexpectedly, very suddenly, they experienced extreme winds and what could only be described as a fire tornado that lifted the back of the truck, fully inverted it and landed it on its roof, trapping three people, three crew that is, and unfortunately, one of them fatally,” Superintendent Westwood said.

“The driver was a veteran captain of 35 years-plus experience.

“He thought he was in the right spot — as he was, from what I can understand — and just this freakish weather event that would have to be seen to be believed. Even then, other veteran firefighters don’t believe what they saw, [it] engulfed that vehicle with flame, fire, and strong winds and literally picked up an 8-tonne truck and flipped it over.

(From ABC News)

Many readers have probably already seen the horrific scenes of apocalyptic-like doom, the navy rescuing people stranded on the beach as their town was being destroyed, and no doubt similar scenes elsewhere in the world.

A few weeks ago fires several kilometres away were causing our view across town to be hazed out by smoke. To go outside was to breathe smoke and return inside smelling strongly of smoke. A few days later I thought it was clearing and went outside at twilight and saw what looked for all the world like a “glorious red sunset” — but not where the sun sets in the west; it was in the south! Reflections of the fire in the clouds. An apocalyptic poet would find words to depict something like the sun being thrown out of its orbit.

A Timeline

2017

That Coal Prop in Parliament

 

2018

Inside a Pentecostal Hillsong Church (link is to analysis of the influence of his religious beliefs on his politics, inc climate change) (And here’s another.)

 

2018 (Nov)

And a similar message was delivered directly for Greta Thunberg.

 

2019

Brian Houston, Pentecostal Hillsong Pastor, is a potential liability publicity wise given coming under a cloud for failing to report to police evidence that his father had been guilty of child sex abuse in his church. (And one more about the Devil and Scott Morrison.)

2020

Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land

We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.

Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.

Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.

One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.

From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.

Neither side, apparently, had expected what happened next. read more »

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Back in 2015-2016 I was trying to understand the emergence and character of Islamic State and ended up purchasing and reading four books in particular that appeared to be authored by researchers whose credentials indicated that they should know what they are talking about:

  • Cockburn, Patrick. 2015. The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution. London ; New York: Verso.
  • McCants, William Faizi. 2015. The Isis Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Stern, Jessica, and J. M. Berger. 2015. Isis: The State of Terror. London: William Collins.
  • Weiss, Michael. 2015. Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts.

I thought I’d share here with anyone interested what each of those authors had to say about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014-2015. I omit the details of Islamic State expansion and focus on al-Baghdadi’s background and rise to lead the Islamic State. (Contrary to what even official state declarations from the U.S. have said, al-Baghdadi definitely was not the founder of ISIS. al-Baghdadi does not enter the story of ISIS until after it had been up and running for about six years.) One facet not brought out in the following extracts is that al-Baghdadi’s vision of an Islamic State caliphate was flatly opposed by Al Qaeda’s leadership. Al Qaeda foresaw that any attempt to establish a territorial caliphate at that time could only face one outcome — total military defeat by Western-led armies. And that’s what happened, as we know. al-Baghdadi was the man to push for such territorial expansion, however, recruiting military leaders from Saddam’s Baathist dominated army. What happens now that Islamic State is both defeated militarily and also having lost the leader who was the force behind that military quest remains to be seen. A reunification with Al Qaeda? A focus on terrorist operations? Eventual dissipation?

. . . ISIS. Before it captured Mosul and Tikrit it could field some 6,000 fighters, but this figure has multiplied many times since its gain in prestige and appeal to young Sunni men in the wake of its spectacular victories. Its very name (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) expresses its intention: it plans to build an Islamic state in Iraq and in “al-Sham” or greater Syria. It is not planning to share power with anybody. Led since 2010 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, it has proved itself even more violent and sectarian than the “core” al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is based in Pakistan.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began to appear from the shadows in the summer of 2010 when he became leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops. AQI was at a low point in its fortunes, as the Sunni rebellion, in which it had once played a leading role, was collapsing. It was revived by the revolt of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 and, over the next three years, by a series of carefully planned campaigns in both Iraq and Syria. How far al-Baghdadi has been directly responsible for the military strategy and tactics of AQI and later ISIS is uncertain: former Iraqi army and intelligence officers from the Saddam era are said to have played a crucial role, but are under al-Baghdadi’s overall leadership.

Details of al-Baghdadi’s career depend on whether the source is ISIS itself, or US or Iraqi intelligence, but the overall picture appears fairly clear. He was born in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad, in 1971 and is well educated, with degrees in Islamic studies, including poetry, history, and genealogy from the Islamic University of Baghdad. A picture of al-Baghdadi, taken when he was a prisoner of the Americans in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, shows an average-looking Iraqi man in his mid-twenties with black hair and brown eyes.

His real name is believed to be Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. He may have been an Islamic militant under Saddam as a preacher in Diyala province, to the northeast of Baghdad, where, after the US invasion of 2003, he had his own armed group. Insurgent movements have a strong motive for giving out misleading information about their command structure and leadership, but it appears al-Baghdadi spent five years, between 2005 and 2009, as prisoner of the Americans.

After he took over, AQI became increasingly well organized, even issuing detailed annual reports itemizing its operations in each Iraqi province. Recalling the fate of his predecessors as AQI leader, al-Baghdadi insisted on extreme secrecy, so few people knew where he was. AQI prisoners either say they never met him or, when they did, that he was wearing a mask.

Patrick Cockburn

Taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, al-Baghdadi sent experienced fighters and funds to Syria to set up JAN as the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He split from it in 2013, but remained in control of a great swath of territory in northern Syria and Iraq.

Against fragmented and dysfunctional opposition, al-Baghdadi has moved fast towards establishing himself as an effective, albeit elusive, leader. The swift rise of ISIS since he took charge has been greatly helped by the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011, which encouraged the six million Sunnis in Iraq to take a stand against the political and economic marginalization they have encountered since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Cockburn, Patrick. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. Verso. Kindle Edition. 2015

–o0o– read more »

Right-wing news is everywhere

Some interesting comparisons of the “left’s” and “right’s” use of social media. Again, citing Ferguson et al, with additional detail from Albright:

In the absence of data transparency, we are reserved about all claims by Facebook, Twitter, Google, or anyone else about what ads they did or did not sell or the uses of the sites; we have trouble understanding why several Congressional committees were so slow to require full public disclosure of exact information, especially once the companies admitted that the ads already ran in public. For the same reason, we are cautious about assertions by Trump campaign workers that they did not find Twitter very useful, though that assertion is potentially very telling, since so many more bots are keyed to Twitter, rather than Facebook (LoBianco, 2017).

We take much more seriously the findings of empirical studies of overall election communication patterns by independent researchers who gathered their own data. Jonathan Albright has attempted to map the “ecology” of both left and right networks in several recent studies. His work emphasizes the unusually dense, ramified character of the right wing messaging networks that developed over the last few years:

“to put it bluntly, ‘right-wing’ news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issuebased websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.” (Albright, 2016).

A Harvard study of the internet in the 2016 presidential election makes a similar point:

“Our clearest and most significant observation is that the American political system has seen not a symmetrical polarization of the two sides of the political map, but rather the emergence of a discrete and relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem, ranging from the center-right to the left. Right-wing media were centered on Breitbart and Fox News, and they presented partisan-disciplined messaging, which was not the case for the traditional professional media that were the center of attention across the rest of the media sphere” (Faris et al., 2017).

What’s going on here? Where are the Russians?

26 Note that Breitbart is strongly pro-Israel, as the site explained repeatedly in the wake of Charlottesville. Steve Bannon’s own movies are also quite sympathetic to African-American problems. But these facts hardly exhaust Breitbart or Bannon’s relationships to the substantial segment of the far right that is openly anti-Semitic and white supremacist. See BERNSTEIN, J. 2017. Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate. BuzzFeed, October 5, 2017. Cf. also the discussion in GREEN, J. 2017. Devil’s Bargain — Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, New York, Penguin.

By 2016, the Republican right had developed internet outreach and political advertising into a fine art and on a massive scale quite on its own (Faris et al., 2017) (Albright, 2016). Large numbers of conservative websites, including many that that tolerated or actively encouraged white supremacy and contempt for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, or the aspirations of women had been hard at work for years stoking up “tensions between groups already wary of one another.”26 Breitbart and other organizations were in fact going global, opening offices abroad and establishing contacts with like-minded groups elsewhere. Whatever the Russians were up to, they could hardly hope to add much value to the vast Made in America bombardment already underway. Nobody sows chaos like Breitbart or the Drudge Report, as the New York Times documented in one Idaho town (Dickerson, 2017).

See the original article onsite for the full detail of the above map: https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96

Albright’s comments:

With a few exceptions, the unique “left-wing” sites are basically nowhere to be found on the right-wing side of the network. The graph confirms that, at least as far as connections (hyperlinks) go online, much of the major “left-wing” media appear to be isolated from the most active parts of the news ecosystem.

. . .

Seriously, the “right-wing” sites have Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Reddit, and YouTube in their own network “corner.” Need I say more?

. . .

To put it bluntly, “right-wing” news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issue-based websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.

. . .

Bottom line is, the right-wing sites appear to be linking heavily into most of the left-wing news media, the major news players, and also to each other. However, the “left-wing” media are not linking into most of the “right-wing” sites. To make matters worse, due to the relative lack of diversity in the left media ecosystem (see my last “macro-propaganda” post), there’s right-wing sites in more places across the network. This must have something to do with the “left-wing” news media/journalism “bubble.”

. . .

To make matters worse for the “left-wing” media, the right also appears to be much more active around the “center” of this combined news ecosystem. And what’s the site at the exact center of this L+R network? It’s Senate.gov. NOAA.gov appears to run a close second, though.


Albright, Jonathan. 2016. “Left + Right: The Combined Post-#Election2016 News ‘Ecosystem.’” Medium. December 11, 2016. https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96.

Ferguson, Thomas, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen. 2018. “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election / How Money Won Trump the White House.” Institute for New Economic Thinking, Working Paper No. 66, January. https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/research-papers/industrial-structure-and-party-competition-in-an-age-of-hunger-games.


 

“How Money Won Trump the White House”

From Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen:

As our Table 4 above showed [not shown here], Trump had largely financed his primary campaign with small contributions and loans from himself. As late as mid-May, he remained convinced that his success in using free media and his practice of going over the head of the establishment press directly to voters via Twitter would make it unnecessary for him to raise the “$1 billion to $2 billion that modern presidential campaigns were thought to require” (Green, 2017).

As the convention approached, however, the reality of the crucial role of major investments in political parties started to sink in. Some of the pressure came from the Republican National Committee and related party committees. Their leaders intuitively grasped the point we demonstrated in a recent paper: that outcomes of most congressional election races in every year for which we have the requisite data are direct (“linear”) functions of money (Ferguson et al., 2016). The officials could safely project that the pattern would hold once again in the 2016 Congressional elections (as it did – see Figure 3).56 But the Trump campaign, too, began to hold out the tin cup on its own behalf with increasing vehemence. As we noted earlier, small donations had been flowing steadily into its coffers. Unlike most previous Republican efforts, these added up to some serious money. But in the summer it became plain that the sums arriving were not nearly enough. In many senses, Trump was no Bernie Sanders.

. . . . .

We are able to source the revenues to individual big businesses and investors and aggregate them by sector (Table 6) and also by specific time intervals. Our data reveal aspects of the campaign’s trajectory that have received almost no attention. It is apparent that Trump’s and Manafort’s efforts to conciliate the Republican establishment initially met with some real success. The run up to the Convention brought in substantial new money, including, for the first time, significant contributions from big business. Mining, especially coal mining; Big Pharma (which was certainly worried by tough talk from the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, about regulating drug prices); tobacco, chemical companies, and oil (including substantial sums from executives at Chevron, Exxon, and many medium sized firms); and telecommunications (notably AT&T, which had a major merge merger pending) all weighed in.57

Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in, including Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo. Parts of Silicon Valley also started coming in from the cold. Contrary to many post-election press accounts, in the end contributions from major Silicon Valley firms or their executives would rank among Trump’s bigger sources of funds, though as a group in the aggregate Silicon Valley tilted heavily in favor of Clinton. Just ahead of the Republican convention, for example, at a moment when such donations were hotly debated, Facebook contributed $900,000 to the Cleveland Host Committee. In a harbinger of things to come, additional money came from firms and industries that appear to have been attracted by Trump’s talk of tariffs, including steel and companies making machinery of various types (Table 6).58 The Trump campaign also appears to have struck some kind of arrangement with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns more local TV stations than any other media concern in the country, for special access “in exchange for broadcasting Trump interviews without commentary (Anne, 2017).”

Crisis

In mid-August, as Trump sank lower in the polls, the crisis came to a head. Rebekah Mercer had her fateful conversation with Trump at a fundraiser. Manafort, already under pressure from a string of reports about his ties with the Ukraine and Russia, was first demoted and then fired. Steve Bannon took over direction of the campaign and Kellyanne Conway was promoted to campaign manager (Green, 2017). . . . .

Breaking Through

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Testing the Water — Dimmericks

Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.

I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)

At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.

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Time to Return

Street Art — Pixabay

I took some leave from blogging, quite unplanned, but it was a compulsive digression. I have been reading, almost non-stop, book after book and article after article, trying to get a firmer handle on what has been happening to make the world (specifically, our “democracies” in the USA, Europe, Australia) what they are today. I knew something big was changing back in the 1980s and then through the 1990s but you know what it’s like, one is busy getting on with life and carries on like all the other frogs (cooking, washing, driving, working, watching tv) who are in the pot that is slowly coming to a boil.

It all started when someone here posted a video of an interview with Noam Chomsky. I had seen the video before but this time for some reason I took notice when Chomsky directed his interviewer to a study on the influence of corporate dollars on the political system. So I looked it up. It was a book published way back in 1995 by Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

The central argument of the book is that political parties are not primarily out there trying to win most votes. That’s a secondary exercise and one that falls into place after achieving their first priority: winning the financial backing of whoever can financially back them the most. In its simplest form the idea can be illustrated this way. (I use the issue of unionized labour because that was Ferguson’s illustration; I thought of changing it to the question of carbon emissions and global warming.)

Imagine 97% of the electorate want strong labour unions to ensure job security and fair compensation. These are the ordinary people with only the basic incomes to get by reasonably happy.

Now imagine 3% of the electorate oppose unionization of labour entirely. These are the rich factory owners who employ everyone else.

Election time comes. None of the 97% has the private means, the money, to stand for election. It costs money just to get around from venue to venue and more money to take care of basic income to support one’s family while doing that, etc etc. But one person hits on an idea of how to get money to do everything necessary to campaign for votes. The only people with the money are the 3%. So our would-be candidate asks them to fund the campaign. Some of that 3 % are willing to do so but only on the condition that the candidate promises not to support unionization, but even oppose the idea.

Another would-be candidate finds a few among the 3% who are willing to allow just a small amount of unionization, say for only 5% of the workforce.

Come election day, assuming the two candidates had equal advertizing and equal coverage of the electorate, that is, they each had the same amount of funding, the best that the 97% of the electorate would get out of the election is a representative who will support no more than the unionization of 5% of the workforce. They would not even be likely to get that candidate if he or she only got a fraction of the campaign contributions as their rival.

Obviously real life is more complex than that simplest of models but Ferguson and his colleagues who study the complexities of funding find the rule works essentially every time: to understand who rules look for who has the gold. That’s the golden rule.

Earlier I posted on what I believed to be an insightful article by Nancy Fraser, From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump — and Beyond. Thomas Ferguson’s work is coming from the same direction. But Golden Rule is old. Published 1995. So I looked for more recent work. And that’s where I’ve been the past several days, reading and following up more recent studies by Ferguson and by others he cites and others who appear to be working from the same datasets of evidence.

The most dramatic shifts have happened with the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, of course, and that’s where I have been trying to catch up with. What the hell is going on? It’s not completely alien to human experience, though. One recent study even sent me back to reading the 1973 edition of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published 1948). (That was to revisit other historical alliances of what Arendt calls “the alliance between mob and capital”.)

It’s been a fascinating, though troubling, journey, covering shifts and divisions in the corporate class, propaganda manipulations, and, I think, a deeper understanding of how this complex and confusing world works. Once again one finds scholarly research tackling questions that have traditionally been forbidden in their field and the need for those pioneers to branch out into interdisciplinary studies before eventually making significant inroads into the conventional wisdom.

I expect to be posting more along the lines of these sorts of studies.

many of them tribal

 

Of course, the Arab or Kurd is only ever in it for the money and tribal warfare is their way of life. How happily enlightened we are.

On an “Independent” Mainstream Media Standing Up to Trump

The Lesson of the Watergate affair:

The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure. The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community. Nixon’s actions were therefore a scandal. The Socialist Workers party, a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore, there was no scandal when it was revealed, just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities by illegal break-ins and other measures for a decade, a violation of democratic principle far more extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings. What is more, these actions of the national political police were only one element of government programs extending over many administrations to deter independent political action, stir up violence in the ghettos, and undermine the popular movements that were beginning to engage sectors of the generally marginalized public in the arena of decision-making. These covert and illegal programs were revealed in court cases and elsewhere during the Watergate period, but they never entered the congressional proceedings and received only limited media attention. Even the complicity of the FBI in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer in Chicago was not a scandal, in marked contrast to Nixon’s “enemies list,” which identified powerful people who were denigrated in private but suffered no consequences. As we have noted, the U.S. role in initiating and carrying out the first phase of “the decade of the genocide” in Cambodia entered the Watergate proceedings only marginally: not because hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered in the course of a major war crime, but because Congress was not properly notified, so that its privileges were infringed, and even this was considered too slight an infraction to enter the final charges. What was true of Congress was also true of the media and their investigative reporting that “helped force a President from office” (Lewis) in what is held to be a most remarkable display of media independence, or arrogance, depending on one’s point of view.

History has been kind enough to contrive for us a “controlled experiment” to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether. This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged.

Exactly the same lessons were taught by the Iran-contra scandals and the media reaction to them. It was a scandal when the Reagan administration was found to have violated congressional prerogatives during the Iran-contra affair, but not when it dismissed with contempt the judgment of the International Court of Justice that the United States was engaged in the “unlawful use of force” and violation of treaties—that is, violation of the supreme law of the land and customary international law—in its attack against Nicaragua. The sponsorship and support of state terror that cost some 200,000 lives in Central America in the preceding decade was not the subject of congressional inquiries or media concern. These actions were conducted in accord with an elite consensus, and they received steady media support, as we have seen in reviewing the fate of worthy and unworthy victims and the treatment of elections in client and errant states.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. 1994. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage. pp. 299-300