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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.

WINNERS:

President Obama (Still got it).

Hillary (Unscathed).

Paul Ryan (We Passed a Bill!).

LOSERS:

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

joke

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Syrian Civil War: Anonymous Film Collective Sheds Light on Conflict

Moustafa Bayoumi hears from Abounaddara, a group of Syrian filmmakers who take us beneath the surface of the conflict. 

The video consists of a single shot of a young woman in a nondescript room. The camera is fixed close to her face as she describes how the Syrian military press-ganged her younger brother into the service one night, dragging him off to the military academy in Homs. “He was fragile,” she says. “His whole life he never made a decision for himself.”

Click here to read more at The Nation.

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Biometrics, or the Power of the Radical Center: An Update

The following, by Nitzan Lebovic, is an update to the author’s essay “Biometrics, or The Power of the Radical Center,” published in the current issue of Critical Inquiry (Summer 2015).

In the coming weeks the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will once again consider the next stage in the establishment of a national biometric database. The process involves a formal recommendation by the minister of foreign affairs, another vote by the ministerial Committee for Biometric Affairs and the Knesset’s Committee for Science and Technology, leading to a vote in the Knesset, all of which will take place very rapidly. This will mark the end of a two-year period, during which a pilot program was to examine the utility and function of the type of biometric database requested by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, ultimately addressing the question of whether one was needed. The pilot program, which the government initiated after members of the public and concerned professionals demanded further research, has failed to accomplish its brief, producing no justification for the establishment of such a database. Nonetheless, the Biometric Authority established jointly by the office of the prime minister and the Ministry of the Interior in 2013 continues to press for approval of a “universal” database that would store information on every Israeli citizen.

(Photo by Tomer Appelbaum)

Furthermore, the infrastructure needed by such a database is already in place, and recently the head of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space announced the intention to erect, in parallel with the universal database, a governmental genetic database. (The announcement was given at the IATI [Israeli Technology Industries] Biomed 2015 conference, and was reported by Gali Weinreb in the Israeli economics magazine Globes, 18 May 2015:  http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001037487.) According to the Biometric Database Law (2009), the biometric database will be made available to police forces, military police, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (Mossad), and the Ministry of the Interior. Tellingly, biometric data from members of the security and secret services will not be included in the database (as reported by Dror Globerman for the blog Nexter, 2 Mar. 2014: http://www.mako.co.il/nexter-internet/security/Article-d4d1bd0684b2441006.htm).

The short report below is based on a recent position paper by a group of experts in Israel, under the supervision of the Digital Rights Movement (“An Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, by the Biometric Authority,” first draft, 15 June 2015,http://www.digitalrights.org.il/files/reports/DRM_report.pdf. Edited by Zvi Devir). The position paper commented on the recent “Concluding Report” submitted by the Bioemtric Authority to the government, in an attempt to finalize the legislation of the database, alongside the shift to biometric smart ID cards (The Biometric Database Management Authority, “A Concluding Report,” signed by the director of the Authority, MR. Gon Kameni, 23 Feb. 2015, http://www.biodb.gov.il/publications/Pages/Periodic-report.aspx). The position paper was submitted to the Israeli state comptroller on 15 June 2015.  It will be submitted to the Knesset, as part of a final, concentrated effort to present to legislators what the Biometric Authority and the government were trying to hide from them. The material for this report includes more than seventy pages detailing basic problems with the biometric pilot project, which included intentional violations of civil rights and a vague attempt to prepare the database for future use by the security forces. The bottom line for the investigation is that the Biometric Authority and its representatives made every possible effort to silence criticism and hide results that did not fit their end goal or the public image they wished to promote. The conclusions of the report—though not couched in theoretical terms—are very similar to those of the article published in Critical Inquiry 41 (Summer 2015), titled “Biometrics, or the Power of the Radical Center,” http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/681788.

As the authors contend in the opening to their “An Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” “The Biometric Authority did not comply with its brief and did not conduct a transparent and authentic ‘pilot’ program, as required by the court; it did not carry out the research needed to establish the need for a biometric database, nor did it search for alternatives.” Two paragraphs after this harsh assessment of the authority’s negligence, the authors offer further criticisms that imply a degree of calculation in that negligence: “The way the authorities treated critics of the database was undemocratic and unreasonable. Instead of opening lines to a productive dialogue, which would have assuaged some of the concerns of their opponents . . . the authorities chose to slander critics and ignore those with opinions differing from their own, electing not to learn from those with outstanding professional qualifications” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 1).

I do not intend, in this short update, to explore the function, theory, and possible results of the biometric database. The article in the summer issue of CI does all that. But I do want to emphasize a few details, chief among them some recent developments. I also hope to show that the current debate about the database proves once again how far the radical center is willing to go— sacrificing norms, proper constitutional conduct, and finally security itself—to eliminate objections, professional and ideological, from left and right.

The position paper that the group of experts submitted opens by tracing the experience of the past two years. They mention the series of public protests; appeals to the supreme court; critical assessments published on websites, in public letters, and in professional articles, all of which attacked the basic assumption of the government—represented by the minister of foreign affairs at the time, Meir Sheetrit—that a biometric database was needed on top of smart IDs. As countless experts tried to explain to government representatives, the information on biometric identification cards is based on algorithms that codify biological identifiers, and that encrypt the information in a way that makes it extremely hard to reproduce, copy, or forge the information.  Nevertheless, Sheetrit, and the Biometric Authority he established, insisted on ignoring such interventions and kept promoting a view that identified smart or biometric identification cards with a biometric database, and waived the larger part of the encryption capability (that protects privacy) in favor of a simpler, universal system.

In stark contrast to the claims of the Biometric Authority, which insisted that “many states . . . have established, during the past few years, biometric databases for both national identification cards and passports, as well as for drivers licenses” (“Concluding Report,” chap. 3.8), not a single country has created the type of database the Israeli government is attempting to establish; the Israeli database is meant to enable, say, a police officer or a border patrol officer to identify an individual rather than to merely verify an individual’s identity. For that reason, the Israeli database is the only one that includes actual biological information, rather than encrypted information meant for the purpose of verification alone. Even Portugal, the only Western state to have established a biometric database, encrypts all its information and reduces its activity to just one of the two options. In short, the Israeli authority is attempting to create an unprecedented biometric database that violates basic constitutional rights and denies that it does so. Furthermore, as internal discussions during the early legislation process demonstrated (see the article in CI for details), the exceptionally wide infrastructure of the database seems to surpass the regular and reduced function of similar databases in favor of a stated, albeit vague, “security” examination. When the state comptroller asked the Biometric Authority for records of the discussion addressing its basic task and general aims, the answer he received was: “The documents could not be found” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 20).

 (Photo by Bloomberg)

Imprecise or wrong information was offered in response to arguments concerning the system’s vulnerability. For example, in contrast to the formal claim according to which the system is physically separated from other systems (“Air Gap,” ensuring a full separation from the public internet or any local area network; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_gap_(networking)) and therefore protected from infiltrations of all kinds and sharing of information, a quick search shows that the separation is only one of networks, and that civilian and commercial companies (the Israeli phone service “Bezek” for example) control it (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. iv). Due to an emphasis on “security” for both military and police purposes, a large number of agencies and official offices are expected to use the database; this expectation undermines any possibility of protecting the information to begin with.

The two-year term of the pilot project is scheduled to end in June 2015. At that time, the Israeli government will be asked to approve the activation of the fully functional national database. During the past few months a series of private and public bodies have criticized one of the basic assumptions regarding the database. The legal advisor to the Committee for Biometric Affairs itself chimed in, pointing out that the creation of biometric identification cards does not necessitate the establishment of a database (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 3). Even the advisory committee that was established in June 2013 to assess the progress of the pilot program criticized its activities, pointing out that no effort had been made to compare the proposed system with any other comparable system abroad (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 5). For reasons never disclosed, publication of the state comptroller’s report was postponed by the Biometric Authority and the minister of foreign affairs. This drove the state comptroller—usually considered to be a convenience-appointment for Prime Minister Netanyahu—to announce that the authority’s own report was “full of substantial gaps” and to ask the government to postpone the legislative process (Ilan Lior, “The State Comptroller Warms from ‘Substantial Gaps’ in the Biometric Database; asks to Postpone the Legislation,” Haaretz 15 Apr. 2015, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2614722).

The list of critics did not end there. A special report by Shin Bet criticized the authority’s failure to secure the information; it mentioned that the pilot program had taken its database live after a security supervisor resigned and six months before hiring the security officer whose duty it was to protect the system from hackers. Furthermore, the Law, Information and Technology Authority within the ministry of Justice criticized the repeated failures of the Bioemtric Authority to answer the criteria detailed in the Privacy Law of 1981 (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, p. 7).

The Biometric Authority aggressively took on its critics, accusing the state comptroller of “issuing a report without consulting the relevant bodies” and arguing at the same time that “all of the state comptroller’s complaints were addressed to his full satisfaction” (“Concluding Report,” p. 42). At the same time, the authority refused to make public both the report it had sent to the comptroller’s office and the comptroller’s response; nor has it explained why an official whose complaints had been fully addressed felt it necessary to air those misgivings in a dramatic announcement to the media. The authors of the position paper declared that not only had the Biometric Authority “failed to comply with the agreed-upon timeline,” but its numerous failures were “concealed from the public and the severity of the failures was concealed from the supervising bodies” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, p. 45).

All of this demonstrates the need to oppose the recent extension of power by ideologues of a digital “soft control,” democratic political centrism, and efficiency. Those who would grow executive power do not seem to mind rolling back public oversight, and give little thought to the individual’s own rights over his or her body. If Israel’s biometric database is approved in June 2015, it will become the largest, most comprehensive database in the world. Well after Michel Foucault offered his comments on the growth of a panoptic state, two centuries of criminal research will yield a network devoted to tracing an entire population’s movements and actions in the public sphere.

Epilogue: on 22 June 2015—a week after the submission of the position paper (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report”)—the state comptroller announced that the full and harsh report about the biometric pilot program is expected later during the day (Ilan Lior, “The State Comptroller’s Report about the Biometric Database: ‘The Data is Not Enough to Determine if it is Needed,’” http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/mevaker/1.2667068). The minister of internal affairs, Silvan Shalom, announced immediately the extension of the pilot program until March 2016 (Ilan Lior, “Hours Before the Publication of the State Comptroller’s Report Silvan Shalom Announced the Extension of the Pilot Period,” http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2666631).

The news of the delay is undoubtedly positive for critics of the database and of the surveillance state, but the expectation is that once this period has ended, it will be confirmed in its current—if somewhat more secured—form.

Nitzan Lebovic is an Assistant Professor of History at Lehigh University. 

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Charleston Shooting: A Long History of Racism

All the pieties about racial solidarity and harmony in Charleston, South Carolina in the wake of the appalling massacre at “Mother Emanuel” church should be tempered with Dave Zirin’s crucial reminder of the history of this church and its long history in the struggle against racism.
—W. J. T. Mitchell, Editor

Charleston’s ‘Mother Emanuel Church’ Has Stared Down Racist Violence for 200 Years

By Dave Zirin

The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.

This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.” Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years. Next year, in fact, was to be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church. It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War. It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions. (It was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.)

Click here to read more at The Nation.

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Writing the Story Backwards: Patrick Cockburn’s “Take” on Syria

Reposted from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/05/27/who-s-lying-about-syria-s-christian-massacre.html

by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad​​

Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources.”

Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.

Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”

The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.

I first reported on Cockburn’s discrepancy in an article for The National and in a review of his book for In These Times. Cockburn corresponded with the latter’s editor last March. In an email sent on March 20, the editor offered him a chance to clarify if he had witnessed a different incident in early 2014 that also met the description given by Abu Ali? Cockburn never replied. (He also did not reply to requests for comment for this article.)

Cockburn’s apparent need to embellish might make sense if one looks at the main argument of his book. For him, Bashar al-Assad is at war with jihadi terrorism; the West has erred in supporting his opponents; and to support the opposition is to support ISIS.

To support this contention, Cockburn in his book quotes “an intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria” who tells him: “ISIS members ‘say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.’”

It is understandable why Cockburn would grant an intelligence officer anonymity, but what reason might there be for extending anonymity to the officer’s country? Could it be that the “country neighboring Syria” is Iraq, or Iran—both key Assad allies?

For over a year, Syria’s nationalist rebels have been at war with ISIS, which expanded mainly by seizing territory that they had earlier liberated from the regime. ISIS has led a war of attrition against the anti-Assad rebellion, assassinating its leaders, harassing its fighters, and disappearing civil society activists. Starting on New Year’s Day 2014, a rebel coalition led by the Free Syria Army (FSA), the Islamic Front (IF), Ahrar al-Sham (AS)—and even Jabhat al-Nusra—united to drive IS out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, and parts of Aleppo and Damascus.

But far from applauding the rebels for confronting ISIS, Cockburn lumps them in with the moderates, noting at the time that “the bitterly divided rebels are fighting their own civil war in which 700 people have died in recent days.” That the fighters are divided along ISIS/anti-ISIS lines, and that ISIS captured and executed 100 of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rebels during its retreat, gets barely a mention. “The internecine warfare in the highly fragmented rebel movement”, he writes, “will further discredit them at home and abroad.”

By contrast, Cockburn takes a generous view of the regime’s belated and brief confrontation with ISIS. He has pronounced Assad’s army its “main military opponent”, deserving of western support. But facts tell a different story. According to a Carter Center study, the regime has spared ISIS in 90 percent of its attacks; and an IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) study finds that in 2014, the regime targeted ISIS in only 6 percent of its attacks (ISIS in turn directed its fire on the regime in only 13 percent its operations).

For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists.

This isn’t Cockburn’s only apparent omission. During the battle for Kobani, Cockburn briefly elevated the Kurds to the status of “the main military opponents” of ISIS, a position he usually reserves for the Assad regime. When the siege of the town was finally broken on January 26, the main Kurdish resistance force, the YPG, issued a statement thanking “brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces.” But Cockburn, who has dismissed the existence of nationalist rebels such as the FSA as “pure fantasy,” he ignored the Kurds’ own nod to their allies.

In his January 28 column, Cockburn credited U.S. airstrikes with helping the Kurds defend Kobani but made no mention of the FSA. Instead, he reported that, according to General James Mattis, “the time for supporting ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels had passed”. He added: “The Syrian armed opposition is increasingly under the control of ISIS and its rival, the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra” and that overthrowing Assad would only “benefit ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

On February 8, Cockburn again dismissed Syria’s nationalist opposition (“these barely exist outside a few pockets”). This time he used a statement by Joe Biden as evidence that jihadists, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were dominating the anti-Assad opposition. (Biden did not exclude the presence of a non-jihadist opposition, but Cockburn did.) Cockburn then criticized the U.S. for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS.”  The Kurds were already out of the picture.

Meanwhile the Kurds and the FSA continued their advance on Kobani and by February 19, according to the BBC, they had taken 240 of the surrounding villagesand were advancing on the strategic town of Tal Abyad.

On February 24, Cockburn made a glancing reference to the YPG advance without any mention of the FSA. The next day, he gave fuller coverage but framed the story as the first evidence of “military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. … continuing in offensive operations.” He used the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the same source as the BBC, but, unlike the BBC, made no mention of the FSA fighting alongside the Kurds.

The omission is telling.

On March 19, when Cockburn concluded a five-part series for The Independent on life under ISIS, he complained that “the U.S. and its allies are not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” (As a matter of fact, against the wishes of its regional Sunni allies, the U.S. has been providing air support to Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias,whose sectarian oppression was one cause of Sunni disillusionment and the rise of ISIS.)

Yet even as he presents the Syrian Army as a nemesis of ISIS, Cockburn hasn’t reported on a single instance where, since at least the start of the year, the regime has successfully confronted ISIS. More bizarrely, to emphasize “the importance of ground-air co-operation” in the fight against ISIS, he cites the example of Kobani, where Assad’s forces had no presence and where American air support helped the YPG—and the FSA—repel an ISIS offensive.

Perhaps Cockburn is loath to support the opposition because it now has a large Islamist component (a troubling development, no doubt). But Cockburn appears remarkably unconcerned about extreme Islamism when he is calling for airstrikes in support of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.

For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists. He is an enthusiast for the war on terror—Bashar al-Assad’s war on terror. He criticizes the U.S. for excluding from its anti-ISIS coalition “almost all those actually fighting ISIS, including Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds and the Shia militias in Iraq.” “The enemy of our enemy”, he insists, “must be our friend”—and those who reject this formula are “glib” and “shallow”.

Not being glib or shallow, Cockburn apparently cedes little to reality. On January 7, he used the Charlie Hebdo attacks as an occasion to admonish the West to end its war against Assad, a potential ally in the confrontation with Islamic extremism. On the same day, a 17-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was leaked which confirmed that the regime had used chemical weapons in Idlib and Hama.

On February 8, when Cockburn reprised his criticism of the West for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS,” the regime launched a particularly savage series of bombings in Douma,killing up to 250 civilians.

On March 19, Cockburn criticized “the U.S. and its allies” for “not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” The Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) confirmed 17 deaths under regime torture on the same day. Two days earlier, Amnesty International had published a report on the regime’s latest chemical attack in Idlib, which killed an entire family and affected up to 100 people.

On April 12, when Cockburn made his latest case for befriending Assad, theregime killed 102 people using barrel bombs and fuel air explosives. Targets included an elementary school where rescuers found two female teachers still seated, their heads severed by the blast.

This is not Cockburn being unlucky with his timing. In Syria, over the past three years, regime atrocities have been a daily occurrence. A call for befriending Assad will have unfortunate juxtapositions on any day. The thing that is rare, however, is for Cockburn to acknowledge an atrocity that is committed by the regime rather than by its opponents.

For that reason, April 14 was notable. For the first time in over a year, citing Human Rights Watch, Cockburn reported on a regime war crime (another chemical attack). The last time Cockburn had mentioned a regime atrocity was on March 20, 2014, when he spoke about the August 2013 chemical attack in the context of describing the naiveté of Syrian civil activists. Close to 70,000 people were killed in between, the overwhelmingly majority by the regime.

According to the VDC and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime is responsible for close to 95 percent of all verified civilian deaths. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had already perpetrated at least eight major massacres (the rebels, too, were responsible for at least one massacre).

This equation remains unchanged. Pineheiro noted last September that despite ISIS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.” Physicians for Human Rights estimate that of the 610 medical workers killed in Syria since the beginning of the uprising, the regime was responsible for 97 percent of the deaths, 139 of whom died by torture or execution.

For a journalist to acknowledge all this, and still pronounce the regime a lesser evil deserving of friendship and military support can’t be easy. Cockburn seems to deal with it by turning a blind eye to the regime’s ongoing slaughter of civilians. He is helped in this by the obtrusive barbarism of ISIS, which uses spectacle in the place of scale to force media attention. ISIS has been a godsend for the regime; it has helped divert attention from its crimes—and regime-friendly journalists have obliged in the deflection.

Consider Cockburn’s cheery report on a “peace deal” in Tal Kalakh from June 2013. He writes that the town “changed sides at the week-end,” from the rebels to the regime after it “forged a peace deal,” though the “exact terms of the deal are mysterious.”

The mystery is resolved later in the article, when Cockburn reveals that the deal “appears to have been brokered by leading citizens of the town who did not want it to become a battleground again. The devastating destruction at Qusayr when it was stormed over two weeks by the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah gave a sense of urgency to the final negotiations.” He gets to inspect the “cache of weapons on show by the army—a few mortar bombs, rockets and explosives”; they are “not very impressive.”

In other words, a heavily outgunned town surrendered to a superior, more ruthless, regime force. All the same, Cockburn walks through the town and finds that “soldiers and civilians looked relaxed.” He mocks the “pro-rebel Al-Jazeera Arabic” for claiming that “smoke was rising from the town;” Cockburn “did not see or smell any.” He even gets to speak to “a local FSA commander” (at that point, Cockburn was still acknowledging the FSA), who tells Cockburn that he changed sides “because of general disillusionment with the uprising.”

Only later are we told: “Listening to [the FSA rebel] impassively were Syrian army officers.”

Cockburn gives no indication that he is troubled by the officers’ presence while he interviews a surrendered soldier.  Far from it. The trip leads him to conclude: “The only way to bring the political temperature down is by local ceasefires and peace deals.” Syria would be at peace, in other words, if all Syrians just re-submitted to regime rule.

Cockburn is only following the precedent of his colleague Robert Fisk who, in August 2012, after a massacre of 400-500 people in Daraya, rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier to the scene, interviewed survivors—“in the company of armed Syrian forces”—and concluded that, contrary to initial reports, “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” were responsible for the massacre.

Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, however, visited the town unaccompanied and interviewed survivors without the menacing presence of the Syrian Army. They told di Giovanni that the massacre was carried out by the regime, a conclusion corroborated by Human Rights Watch.

Tal Kalakh wasn’t the only instance of Cockburn’s creative reframing. Last month, when ISIS made a push for the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, he reported it thusly: “The takeover by ISIS of part of Yarmouk Camp in southern Damascus, a city that has been under siege by the group for two years, may mean that its commanders believe it is better to attack here than engage in a battle of attrition at Tikrit.”

From the article, readers would be hard-pressed to learn that the camp has endured a crippling siege by regime forces since July 2013. The article gives the impression that Yarmouk’s troubles began with the arrival of ISIS. Cockburn zooms out from the immediate situation in Yarmouk to speak of Damascus being under ISIS siege. (There is no mention, either, of the barrel bombs the regime has been dropping on Yarmouk). Before ISIS intervened in April 2015, in the 21 months of the regime’s siege on the camp, Cockburn mentioned Yarmouk in only two of his articles (on January 29 and January 30 last year)—the same number he devoted to the alleged massacre in Adra.

At their best, journalists exhume truth, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in My Lai. At their worst, they try to bury it, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in Eastern Ghouta.  Six months after a clumsy attempt at mass-crime revisionism, Hersh blurbed Cockburn’s book. Generous praise from Hersh would once have counted as an honor; after Syria, it may be read as an indictment.

Cockburn, however, is not like Hersh or Fisk. He never embraced the conspiracy theories around the massacres in Houla, Daraya, or Eastern Ghouta. Occasionally he even mentions regime crimes. His accounts in these instances are straight and unvarnished. Adra was his only apparent Brian Williams moment.

But as one astute commentator observed following the Williams affair:

Usually…there is no reason to lie because almost any story can be given an appearance of truthfulness by judicious selection of the facts…there are an infinite number of facts and it is the judgement of the journalist that decides which are significant or insignificant…in a sense, all stories are written backwards, beginning with the writer’s “take” on what matters and only then proceeding to a search for facts that he or she judges to be important.

The commentator was Patrick Cockburn—the journalist with an immutable “take”.

Elsewhere, Cockburn has complained that “those who purvey the most destructive lies in the media will seldom be identified or punished.” Indeed, sometimes they are rewarded. Despite the stark disproportion between the realities on the ground in Syria and Cockburn’s coverage, his reputation hasn’t suffered. He wins journalism awards; audiences receive him with credulous awe; the media eagerly seeks his expertise. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books (a once respectable publication that has become overly hospitable to conspiracist clickbait).

That Cockburn has received awards instead of scrutiny is an indictment of the British journalism establishment. It shows that those bestowing honours either share his prejudices or are too ignorant to notice them. It’s time for them to make amends.

– Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling (Scotland) and a co-editor of PULSE. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: the Making of a Neoconservative War.​

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