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Toward a People’s History of the Syrian Uprising—A Conversation with Wendy Pearlman

(Cross-posted from PULSE)

By Danny Postel

In the increasingly disfigured debate about Syria, it is scarcely even remembered that it all began as a popular uprising—indeed, as a nonviolentand non-sectarian one whose goals were dignity, justice, and freedom from a one-family mafia torture state in power for more than four decades.

Wendy Pearlman is out to set that record straight and explain why the Syrian uprising happened in the first place.

Pearlman, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago who serves on the faculty of the university’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

For the last two years Pearlman has been working on a book that she conceives as something of a people’s history of the Syrian uprising. She has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the uprising and war. Along the way, she has published a series of powerful articles, among them “Love in the Syrian Revolution”“Fathers of Revolution” and “On the Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising”.

In September, our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver had the pleasure of co-hosting Pearlman (along with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy) for a pair of presentations about her book-in-progress. While she was in Denver, I conducted this interview with her for our Middle East Dialogues video series:

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On the Passing of Oliver Sacks

“It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life

This remark, from James Baldwin via Sara Weschler, seems like the most fitting summation of the life and death of this remarkable man.  See the link below for Ren Weschler’s moving reflections on Oliver Sacks.   —WJTM

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Michael Taussig: The Mastery of Non-Mastery

Michael Taussig, a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry, has recently spent some very intensive time among the Kurdish resistance fighters in northern Syria. His report on this situation, published recently in The New School’s online Public Seminar, should be required reading for anyone who cares about this part of the world, the state of political Islam, the policies of the U.S. in the Middle East, and the lived experience of emancipatory and progressive movements worldwide. Taussig’s report is a masterwork of precise, detailed analytical description coupled with poetic exactitude and theoretical/political depth. You will find it at this link:
– W. J. T. Mitchell

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Nicholas Mirzoeff reflects on the emergent movement around Black Lives Matter and its use of new media

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“Arms of the same beast”: Bill Ayers Reflects on Ta-Nehisi Coates and Education

Bill Ayers reflecting on the world of the teacher today, by way of an appreciation of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

William Ayers

Last year my students—Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations—all read The Beautiful Struggle. I’d put Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. “What’s this got to do with teaching?”

I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life—the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival—I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools—necessary reading for city teachers I thought.

There was a lot to dig into, much to wrangle about, and a lot to send us off to other readings and further research. Soon students were diving into Crystal Laura’s Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline, Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reap,  Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Rachel DeWoskin’s Big Girl Small. The book was doing work, as I’d hoped it would.

My students have all chosen to become teachers against a backdrop of corporate-driven school reform accompanied by unprecedented disrespect and hostility toward teachers and teaching. They know that teaching is devalued; they know they won’t earn either a lot of money or a fair share of respect; they’ve been told by family and friends that they could do much, much better. And still they come to teaching, most saying they want to make a difference in children’s lives. Some are motivated by memories of a wonderful teacher who’d reached and changed them, others by bitter experiences they hope to correct. They are mostly idealistic, and I admire them for that.

They bring to class a vague hope that they will do great things in spite of a system that they know to be corrupt and dysfunctional. But this knowledge is not yet deep enough, for they also accept—some with greater skepticism and some with hardly any doubts at all—the predatory system’s self-serving propaganda: test scores, achievement gaps, accountability, personal responsibility.

Into this contradiction steps Ta-Nehisi Coates with an assertion that shaped and marked the course: No matter what the professional talkers tell you, Coates wrote, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail. That simple observation—or was it an argument, a polemic, or an indictment?—led to hot debate on the evening we first opened the book, and those 18 words were still roiling the seminar as the term came to an end.

Coates never lets up, and he returns again and again: Fuck what you have heard or what you have seen in your son. He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home. He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system. But inside is the same sense that was in me. None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.

Some claimed to have evidence to the contrary, while others answered that those contentions skated glibly on the surface of things and failed to go deep enough in search of root causes, accepting as fact the propaganda that locates failure everywhere but in the intentional design of the system itself. Some rejected the idea that they were agents of the state, bit players in a white colonial space, while others argued that teaching could never be even partially useful—let alone reach toward transcendence—until teachers fully faced the friction and gaping contradictions inherent in their teacher-roles. Truth and reconciliation, they argued, system-disruption and radical reconstruction; remediating the students is a ridiculous misdirection.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, takes us deeper into life in schools, and especially what the experience means to its captives. I was a curious boy, Coates writes, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.

That nails it: the obsessions that characterize American classrooms today—especially urban classrooms and schools attended by the poor, recent immigrants from impoverished countries, First Nations peoples, and the descendants of formerly enslaved people—are simple: the goal is obedience and conformity, the watchword, control. These schools are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism, dishonesty, and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies of constraint, the elaborate schemes for managing the fearsome, potentially unruly mob, the knotted system of rules, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks and surveillance, the laborious programs of regulating, indoctrinating, inspecting and punishing, disciplining, censuring, correcting, counting, appraising, assessing and judging, testing and grading. The corporate reformers offer no relief, and simply create charter or alternative schools that enact this whole agenda on steroids. They are not concerned with curiosity or imagination, initiative or courage because their purpose is elsewhere: everyone more or less submissively accepting their proper place in the hierarchy of winners and losers.

One night I opened seminar by telling the class that less than two miles from where we were meeting almost 10,000 Jewish women were housed in cages. It was an electrifying and terrifying image, and the class rose up, some convinced I was joking (though I wasn’t smiling) others that I was lying, all insisting that it couldn’t be true. I eventually relented—you’re right, I said, it’s not true. The truth is that 10,000 poor, mostly very young Black and Latino men are living in those cages. Everything calmed down; the normal world returned.

And we returned to Coates: the streets and the schools [were] arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state [but] fear and violence were the weaponry of both.

We had worked earlier to name the system, a system built on theft and lies and plundering Black bodies, Coates said. It was surely a predatory system, a racist system, and we looked hard at that word: racism. In one common context it meant ignorance and prejudice, the off-hand comments of Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling, but there was more: there was the system itself, the plunder, the laws and structures, the schools. Donald Sterling’s filthy mind and mouth is one thing; that he became rich as a swindling slum-lord something else.

“I’m no Donald Sterling,” people say, meaning I don’t utter the hateful words. But Coates won’t let anyone off the hook: the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. Their privileges are earned—they are good and true folks all—or come from thin air; their comfortable lives as normal as noon coming around every 24 hours. James Baldwin decades ago accused his country and his countrymen of a monstrous crime against humanity, and added a further dimension to the indictment: it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Coates names the schools as central to the system: If the streets shackled my left leg, the schools shackled my right. The shackles were fear and violence, and also lies and denial.

In 2006 Florida passed a law stipulating that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” The law called for an emphasis on the “teaching of facts.” Facts and only facts, without frivolous and messy interpretation, would be permitted by the legislators to guide instruction, for example, about the “period of discovery.” I read that and did a neck-wrenching double-take: Huh? Whose facts, exactly, I wondered? The facts of a Genoan adventurer in the pay of  Spanish royalty, the facts of the First Nations residents overwhelmed, murdered, and enslaved, or possibly a range of other facts and angles-of-regard altogether? I’ll guess that the Florida lawmakers went with the first choice, legislating in effect a pep-rally for Christopher Columbus—yes, their own particular constructed explanation and analysis of events and circumstances passing as Fact.

In 2008 a group in the Arizona legislature passed a law stating that schools whose curriculum and teaching “encourage dissent” from “American values” risked losing their state funding. American history is bursting with stories of dissent from the first revolutionaries onward: Abolitionists, Suffragettes, anarchists and labor pioneers, civil rights and Black Power warriors, peace and environmental activists, feminists, heroes and sheroes and queeroes, Wounded Knee, Occupy, Black Lives Matter! Wherever you look and whatever period you examine, dissent is as American as cherry pie, an apple-core American value and the very engine of hope or possibility—except to the lawmakers of Arizona.

A history teacher in a Southside Chicago school was teaching a standard lesson on the legendary 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Brown reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and ended racial segregation in US schools, and the lesson was pointedly directed toward illustrating our great upward path as a nation. A student who had appeared to be paying no attention at all spoke up suddenly, challenging the teacher: “So you’re saying this class here is against the law? We’re breaking the law here? Can I call the cops?” Everyone cracked up, but the disruptive student was highlighting the obvious: here was a segregated classroom in a segregated school in a country that had outlawed school segregation decades ago.

It doesn’t take perceptive young people anytime at all to sniff out the duplicity and the dirty-dealing in the nothing-but-the-facts agenda, and to conclude that all schools lie. Teachers lie. Parents lie. In fact the whole edifice of adult society is a complete phony, a tangled and fiddly fraud sailing smoothly along on an enforced sea of silence. Some students submit to the empire of deception, concluding that the price of the ticket includes winking at the massive hoax and promising to keep quiet and go along—they’ll hopefully get rewarded by-and-by. Many other students go in the opposite direction: their insights lead them to insurgent actions and gestures and styles, all matter-of-fact performances of self-affirmation as well as hard-nosed refusals of complicity and rejections of a world that is determinedly disinterested in their aspirations and perceptions and insights.

There’s a genre of jokes that all end with the same punch-line: in one version, a man comes unannounced and unexpectedly upon his partner in the intimate embrace of another, and explodes in accusation. The accused looks up indignantly and says: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?” Kids get it viscerally: schools are asking them to ignore their immediate experiences and their direct interpretations—their own lying eyes. Who you going to believe?

In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing offers a compelling statement about modern education as a dominion of deception:

It may be that there is no other way of educating people.  Possibly, but I dont believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated…What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture…You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system…you…[must] find ways of educating yourself—educating your own judgment…”

Schools chug along on the rails of indoctrination and propaganda: everywhere you look and in every direction lies the hype of the curriculum and the disingenuous spin about young people. Students are routinely subjected to an alphabet soup of sticky, inaccurate labels, mistrusted and controlled, and defined as lacking the essential qualities that make one fully human. On a daily basis and as part of the normal routine, schools engage in the toxic habit of labelling students by their presumed deficits, and officially endorse failure—especially for children of the least powerful—in the name of responsibility and objectivity and consequences.

And everywhere you look and in spite of it all, youth are making their wobbly ways toward enlightenment and liberation, the twin pillars of an education of purpose. From Youth Speaks in Oakland to the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Chicago Freedom School, they are having their say and forging their unique pathways. And right next to them are wondrous teachers in countless spaces and places organizing small insurgencies and underground railroads, bursts of purpose and power growing through the cracks in the concrete. These are teachers whose faith in the young calls them to dive into the contradictions, to find ways through the mechanisms of control, to tell the truth when it must be told, and to take the side of the child.

Between the World and Me will be required reading for those teachers, and it will be on my syllabus in the Fall. Get ready.

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Postmortem: The Battle over Trade Promotion Authority

What do trade politics portend for 2016?

By Ardevan Yaghoubi

On Monday, President Obama signed Trade Promotion Authority, also known as ‘fast track’ or ‘TPA’. Trade Promotion legislation is a mechanism that allows the Executive branch to conclude negotiations on trade agreements and bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Trade politics makes for strange bedfellows. And yet the Trade Promotion Authority fight had surprisingly little to do with trade. In fact, international trade has widespread support from the American people and even more popularity among political and economic elites. Many of the nays on TPA from both sides of the aisle went to great lengths to couch their votes as ‘I support trade in principle, but…’. This signals that these Representatives’ main concern wasn’t trade; it was something else. Yet the otherwise-mundane TPA bill—an authority given to every President since FDR, excepting Nixon—became a lightning rod for Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives, leading to an embarrassing few days of headlines for President Obama as his Congressional supporter Nancy Pelosi voted against the bill.

So rather than a genuine dispute about trade agreements, the battle over TPA should rather be seen as the opening bout before November’s pay-per view event: the 2016 election. The signals we can pick up from the fight on Capitol Hill are cross-cutting, but unambiguous:

  1. Republicans have their house in order — don’t expect a repeat of 2012.
  2. Hillary can withstand the left-wing challenge — but there will be blood.

Let’s start on the right.

Within days of the Republican clawback of control in Congress last November, the voices began swirling: trade will be the Republican lodestar. Influential Republicans, sitting and former, found harmony in repeating the mantra of trade. Seven months later, the GOP credibly showed it can govern. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that oversees fast track, felt first-hand in 2012 the pain that party strife can cause when he lost his bid to become Vice President. No doubt this had compelled him to shepherd the stray members of his flock, including Tea Partiers opposed to ‘Obamatrade’, towards legislative pragmatism. Just comparing ‘hashtags’ for a moment — the ubiquitous ‘Obamacare’ vs the comical-sounding ‘Obamatrade’ — gives an indication of the change in Republican strategy. GOP leadership was able to clamp down on internal opposition, make the concessions required, and find an ally across the aisle, President Obama. In short, Republicans made themselves seem like a reasonable party.

This about-face from the last six-plus years demonstrates quite clearly that Republicans have learned from the failures of 2012 and 2014 and are gearing up for 2016 with a vengeance. The way the GOP coalesced around the principle of free trade, then found the legislative means to accomplish it, should be a warning sign to Democrats. Republicans could not unite on theory or practice in 2012: Mitt Romney was arguably undone by his party, not vice-versa, and President Obama capitalized by running a great campaign. But we can learn from the events of the past few weeks in Congress to expect less internal chaos from Republicans, not more, despite the numerous candidates vying for the ticket. Nonetheless, the still-dominant, but on the evidence false, impression is still that the Republican party is too ideologically divided to present a meaningful challenge in the next Presidential campaign.

The clearest sign that Republicans are unified, tactically savvy, and out for blood flew under the radar of most political observers, but it was a veritable dog whistle for those who have followed the trade debate from the start.

The way the bills were framed by Senate negotiators and House leadership meant that TPA could be forced through over Democratic opposition. And that’s exactly what happened. TPA is now become law after a few nail-biting sessions in Congress. In the House vote, no one knew where Pelosi would ultimately come down. Her meandering speech started off by asking for more time and a slower process. Bucking the President, she reluctantly said she would not vote for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a side-bill that was meant to garner Democratic support, as it provides redress for workers displaced by trade.

So the bargain made by bipartisan negotiators was clear: Democrats would get TAA while Republicans would get support for TPA. Pelosi put a bullet in the deal not by getting her bill and then cynically reneging on TPA, but by voting down TAA! Other Democrats quickly piled in — TAA was voted down handily — and Republicans had a snap choice to make. After TAA, a fig leaf to Democrats, was unceremoniously swatted away, Republicans could have delayed voting on TPA itself. That’s what Pelosi was signaling to Boehner: take TPA off the floor, meet me halfway, and then I’ll bring Democrats on board.

Her strategy was poorly considered.

Instead, Republicans drove the trade truck right through the House. They announced the vote on TPA would go forward, even though there were implicit guarantees they wouldn’t hold a vote. TPA passed, 219-211 in the House, and after some wrangling in the Senate, the bill was delivered to the President and signed into law.

A neutral political observer would see that Republicans set up Democrats and the Administration for embarrassment by bringing the vote in the House so soon. On Monday of that week, it is fair to say that the White House and most trade watchers did not expect a vote in the House on Friday; by Wednesday, Obama was visiting the Congressional ballgame to ask for Pelosi’s help. By forcing the President’s hand, Republicans hedged their bets for a win-win, knowing that they would ram TPA through even if Democrats would try to torpedo the vote. Republicans couldn’t control the outcome, but they managed the opportunities in their favor. In all likelihood, the GOP was well aware that something like this turn of events could happen — and they were perfectly happy to push the button anyway. It fits with the broader Republican strategy to take credit for TPA in the Presidential campaign, win back the White House, and erase Democrats’ substantive and reputational achievements in TPP and TTIP.

The shrewd Republican handling of the minefield of trade politics should alert Democrats preparing for 2016. The opposition come November will present a challenge, one that perhaps isn’t sufficiently appreciated yet. But Democrats can take heart from the fact that nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton has shown she can handle the challenge from the left wing of her party with composure.

The TPA fight shows that the Sanders-DeLauro wing can cause real damage, but they can’t bring a knockout punch. At the time, the failure of TPA in the House seemed like a big scalp for left-of-center Democrats, led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. The populist Democrats who opposed TPA are now patting themselves on the back for what was, in legislative terms, a win that they let slip through their fingers. It is also questionable whether progressive energies are being misused against a trade deal negotiated by a Democratic President. For Pelosi, her reputation as the best vote-sniffer of her generation must be in question as Democrats shuffle their leadership in the Senate with an eye towards the next election cycle.

As for Hillary, she was able to contort—but not contradict—herself by taking the line that she would wait to evaluate the merits of the trade deal, which she promoted vociferously as Secretary of State. As temporarily incredulous as this was, it proved to be a smart strategy, and she survived the onslaught. Now, as TPA passes and the TPP is finalized, candidate Clinton can say she either supports the agreement, or finds genuine issue with particular chapters and provisions. It also helps that she doesn’t have to vote on the TPP and therefore can remain ambiguous until absolutely necessary. Regardless of which option she takes — one presumes that it will be the latter, given that her foreign policy calling card  — Hillary has made it clear that she’s nimble enough to duck the punches of a Sanders, O’Malley, or even a Warren.

For both Republicans and the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary, all signs from the arena of trade politics show that they have learned from the failures of recent years.

Welcome to 2016, everyone.


President Obama (Still got it).

Hillary (Unscathed).

Paul Ryan (We Passed a Bill!).


Bernie Sanders (Hillary shadowboxes the socialist).

Nancy Pelosi (Opportunistic opposition undoes optimum outcome).

Ted Cruz (Harvard law grad thinks TPA is unconstitutional).

Ardevan Yaghoubi is a project assistant for the Global Business and Economics Program of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank. He is a graduate of New College, Oxford and the University of Chicago. 

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Gay Marriage and the Breakthrough in Biblical Interpretation

Thanks to Steve Wade, we now have a glimpse of the next stage of human rights. Christian Evangelicals take heed!

—W. J. T. Mitchell, Editor


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