Category Archives: Uncategorized

Forgiveness as a Sovereign Exception: Pussy Riot, Winter Olympics, and the New Russian Biopolitics

Anya Bernstein

“2013 has been a challenging year,” said president Vladimir Putin in his New Year’s address to Russian citizens. “In the coming year, we have a lot of work to do for the prosperity and security of our citizens,” he continued, mentioning the recent suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd and flooding in the Far East. “We also have to ensure that the Olympic Games are held at the highest possible level.” The Winter Olympics, which are to be held in the subtropical city of Sochi in less than a month, are supposed to be a chance to showcase Russia’s economic growth, modernization, and openness to the world. The multi-year preparations for the Games, a ritual spectacle that puts individual bodies on display, subjecting them to intense scrutiny while metonymizing them as the collective body of the nation, have been nothing short of breathtaking. They have included the complete rebuilding of the subtropical city of Sochi, with massive relocations, the widespread use of  migrant labor, and 14,000 runners passing the Olympic flame, starting at the Kremlin, spacewalking at the International Space Station, scuba diving with the torch in the deep waters of the semi-frozen Lake Baikal, zip-lining across Siberia, and boarding a nuclear-powered icebreaker on the North Pole. Yet it is a rather different traffic in bodies that put Russia into the international spotlight in the years preceding the Olympics.

In the summer of 2012, two members of the Pussy Riot collective received two-year prison sentences for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral. With limited access to the outside world while doing their time in prison, the Pussy Riot women missed a few momentous developments in Russia’s long 2013. On the eve of the last New Year celebrations, a new law banned foreign adoptions of Russian orphans among vague fears that, with these children, some kind of vital essence was being siphoned away from Russia by hostile forces. Soon after, a law banning “gay propaganda” was passed with overwhelming support, as public display of homosexuality was deemed detrimental to children and, more generally, to the health of the Russian body politic. Moscow’s government cracked down on illegal migrants, conducting street sweeps and forcefully placing them in makeshift detention camps. While denying citizenship to certain populations, the Russian state eagerly invited others—more desirable international subjects such as Gérard Depardieu and Edward Snowden—under its auspices. Finally, a new law punishing blasphemy with up to three years of imprisonment under the guise of protecting the “feelings of religious believers” was passed.[1] A new post-post-Soviet strain of biopolitics aimed at strengthening the collective body of the nation seemed to have dawned.

An alternative form of corporeal politics also came of age in 2013: from Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike in prison to the artist Petr Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of the Red Square in a kind of somber self-sacrifice, these acts suggested the ways in which the body could also be used as a site of resistance. Finally, at the very end of the year, quite unexpectedly, a number of political prisoners, including Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were released two months prior to the end of their sentence under an amnesty related to the celebration of twenty years of the Russian constitution. What was this unilateral release of prisoners meant to signify? Was it, in fact, unilateral, or was there a sacrificial logic hidden in this peculiar non-exchange?

In early 2013, I wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry that argued that the trial and punishment of Pussy Riot ended up acquiring a distinct sacrificial character, where the women’s bodies became a means of communicative practice, such as sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warning.[2] I suggested that two distinct sacrificial processes were, in fact, at play: the sacrifice of Pussy Riot to various audiences and the sacrifice of the law itself, artfully maneuvered in the sovereign’s enactment of the state of exception. Observers also stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance.

By unexpectedly granting amnesty to certain prisoners to show Russia’s benevolent face in advance of the Winter Olympics, Putin once again engaged in an arbitrary and selective application of law. As Carl Schmitt and Jacques Derrida showed long ago, forgiveness—as well as any amnesty, pardon, or grace—functions exactly as a sovereign exception. Forgiveness presupposes sovereign power, a superior position from which to forgive; it is indeed an “affirmation of sovereignty.”[3] Pussy Riot were released under new amnesty laws that apply to the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and mothers of small children who have committed minor crimes, including hooliganism, and whose sentence is less than five years. Altogether this was less than 2% of the population of Russian prisons.

It was not the fist time, however, that Nadezhda’s and Maria’s motherhood was invoked in public discourse. During the trial and subsequent parole hearings, many liberals who argued that Pussy Riot should be released did so not because they appreciated their performance (most claimed to find it morally abhorrent) or agreed with their views (which were too far to the left for most), but because they felt it was wrong to keep mothers of small children in prison. Most of Pussy Riot’s liberal supporters did not recognize their performance as political speech at all. Now, after the amnesty and the initial jubilation, the women were subjected to the same or even greater enforcement of gender than ever before. Strikingly, a poignant controversy erupted in the Russian blogosphere when it became known that Nadezhda and Maria did not immediately fly to Moscow to be with their children. Instead, they chose to meet in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to discuss their plans to form an NGO intended to help political prisoners. The blogosphere exploded in laments and moral outcry, calling the women “soulless robots” and effectively withdrawing moral support for them. Only occasionally someone would question this approach, mentioning that if such a question had been asked about another famous (male) political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released around the same time, it would have been seen as utterly absurd.

While liberals decried the fact that Maria and Nadezhda did not justify their expectations, the leftists had their own share of disappointments. They disapproved of the women’s admiration of Khodorkovsky, who, although he may not have deserved his 10-year sentence, remains for many a “slimy” oligarch, too close to power. The leftists declared that Pussy Riot made a joke of those who had made icons out of them, mentioning that during their first press conference at the liberal TV Station Dozhd’, Nadezhda looked not like a punk feminist, but as glamorous as an American top model.[4] Indeed, days after her release, Nadezhda surprised quite a few of her fans by participating in a fashion photo shoot, advertising hip clothes by Evil Twin, American Apparel, and Glamorous, distributed by the company Trends Brands (who, as she later claimed, helped provide her with clothes while she was in prison, which she distributed to other inmates).[5]  In the meantime, the majority of the population remains slightly disappointed with Putin’s leniency, as they believe the women fully deserved to complete their full sentences, and then some. The time in prison and the amnesty, it appears, did nothing to change Pussy Riot’s essential illegibility across the entire Russian political spectrum. The sacrificial processes continue, but the victim, while remaining the medium, has not yet been destroyed.

[1] This past summer the opposition members synechdochally dubbed the Duma—the lower house of the parliament where all of these laws were passed with overwhelming support—the “mad printer,” evoking a hypothetical printer gone wild, spewing out laws without human supervision.

[2] Anya Bernstein, “An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair,” Critical Inquiry 40:220-241.

[3] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, pp. 58-59.

[4] Dmitrii Zhvaniia. “Pussy Riot opozorili levakov.” [Pussy Riot Disgraced the Lefties], December 28, 2013.

Anya Bernstein

Anthropology, Harvard University

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Eloquence of a Reflective Silence: On Nelson Mandela

John and Jean Comaroff

Thanks for asking us to write something on Mandela, which we appreciate. Alas, though, we both feel somewhat exhausted on the subject, having done any number of things for the media. The Harvard Gazette has already published a long interview with us , in which we try to contextualize Mandela’s legacy, and move subtly away from the Big Man history that underpins all the empty hagiography now so pervasive in the US and British press. That legacy is not the story of an individual hero, as iconic — or, rather, metonymic — as he may have become. It is the story of a sovereign struggle, one that involved the deaths of many unnamed heroes, innumerable heroic acts without signature, processes both with and without subjects. The reason that we all feel morally orphaned by the death of Madiba, of Rolihlahla, “the troublesome one,” of Tata, our last living grandparent, is that he was our last tangible link to a modernist sense of political possibility, a utopianism without innocence, with critique rather than self-obsessed cynicism. But sadly, he became a living anachronism in the land of his birth, as the latter was overtaken by neoliberal adjustment, despite all that he had done and been. Somehow, while he lived, that older sense of freedom still seemed recoverable. The death of the Man is also the death of an Epoch, of our epoch, one in which people like you and we actually dared to put faith in the ideals of democratic equity, of justice, of a humane humanity, of the sovereignty of citizens. All that seems fanciful, indeed irrecuperable, After Mandela. In short, the reason that we feel unable to write any more about this moment is that we have said, in deliberately few words , everything we think about it. At this point, the greatest eloquence is the eloquence of a deeply reflective silence. Much of the rest is noise, ritual noise most of it, noise often being made by people who have lacked the courage to stand openly for the things to which Madiba — and the movement at large of which he was part, since he was not “apartheid’s conqueror” in the phrase of the US media, just its most famous struggle hero — gave their lives, their freedom, their spirit. Perhaps the lesson of those lives for us in the USA is what we, as a country, did NOT do to fight apartheid while Rolihlahla Mandela languished in prison, what we have done repeatedly to fight AGAINST democracy under the sign of security and self-interest, why we continue to condone the blatant racism and brute inequity in our desperately unequal, cruel society. Rather than mourn Mandela, which South Africans will do in their millions, perhaps Americans should mourn the death, in our own country, of the ideals and principles for which he stood.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Memoriam: Edward Francis McClennen II, 16 August 1936 – 2 November 2013

Adrian M. S. Piper

While learning the literature in Ramsey-Savage decision theory in order to come to grips with the Humean model of utility-maximizing rationality that Ned and so many others took for granted, I once complained to him that I could retain the proofs and theorems in mind only long enough to write down what I wanted to say about them, after which I immediately forgot them. Each time I thought I might have something more to add, I had to start over again, virtually from scratch. “It’s like that for all of us,” he replied.

That is the way he was: guileless, with this strange intellectual humility that only a deeply rooted philosophical self-assurance could have produced, an Emperor’s New Clothes wild man, his instinctive reactions unconstrained by strategic professional calculation, blithely letting slip closely guarded secrets about the human vulnerabilities of the field, its treasured theories, and its members; constantly flouting the unwritten rules of silence, stonewalling and obfuscation that governed the decision theory men’s club of which he was a lifetime member; always spontaneously dishing up insights, references, and arguments that called his own views into question, as though knowledge and competence in this arcane subspecialty were intellectual goods to be distributed as widely as possible, regardless of advantage, rather than weapons and armor to be jealously guarded, shared and traded only with other members. He didn’t even seem to get that he was a member: that he wasn’t supposed to confirm the validity of critiques that came from very much outside that club; or to encourage arguments and interpretations that no card-carrying member of it would make; or to initiate into the mysteries of the Sure-Thing principle, the Strong Independence Axiom, dispersion of probability distributions, average discounted value, commodity non-complementarity, the standard reduction assumption, etc. someone who could never have hoped to join. He seemed not to notice that, and treated me as though in fact I had; indeed, as though I were as much a member as he. One time I told him about a decision theory conference he had been unable to attend, where I’d had to explain to one of his presenting colleagues what a money pump was in the Q&A. I joked that it had been my finest hour. “Mine, too,” he answered. As he never tried to hit on me, or even evinced any interest in doing so, I didn’t quite know what to make of him, and of his unstinting support for my work. He had made an about-face transition from student and son of University of Michigan English Professor Joshua McClennen in the 1950s to Port Huron founding member of SDS in the 1960s. Perhaps this metamorphosis had taught him to value outsider challenges to inner-sanctum authority as worthy of cultivation in themselves. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Arthur Danto at Columbia and in New York

Akeel  Bilgrami


Arthur Danto has just died.

In two places where Arthur worked for many decades — Columbia’s Philosophy Department and the Journal of Philosophy– there had always been a general feeling among us that much as he loved and laboured here, he found us too confining.  This was a source of pride rather than hurt.  It is an apt measure of the limits of the academy that we should take pride in the fact that every now and then we had among us someone whose talents and intellectual appetites far surpass the nourishment that a mere department or journal or even a professionalized discipline such as Philosophy, can offer.

The larger space, which Arthur occupied with such relish is, of course, the city of New of York.   In fact his whole style was so supremely metropolitan that one gets no sense at all of where he was born and bred.  One might easily have concluded, looking at the style of the man, and of his speech and writing, that everything about his life had been striking, even his birth which was on New Years day of 1924  –yet we mustn’t forget that it was, after all, in Ann Arbor, Michigan that he was born and in Detroit where he was bred.  But like all good New Yorkers and good Columbia men and women, Arthur gave the impression, however wrong, that he really only began to flourish after he came to New York and to Columbia. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mission Underway: A Vigorous US Peace and Human Rights Movement Emerging?

Bernardine Dohrn

In 1998, Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani-American scholar and great antiwar activist, warned the US about the dangers of covert operations and low-intensity warfare.  They always have consequences, he said three years before the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001.  They become “breeding grounds of terror and drugs.”  US military policy-makers, Eqbal noted, — even the most scholarly, articulate and experienced among them — are unable to calculate the consequences of US covert operations and low-intensity warfare, and are unprepared to take into account the impact and future blowback of such intervention, bombing, occupation.  Think Lebanon in 1982, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Crisis in Egypt Today: An Interview with Mohammad Fadel

Danny Postel


Mohammad Fadel is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto, where he is cross-appointed in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, the Faculty of Law, and the Department of Religion. He has written widely on liberalism, democratic theory, international human rights, and Islamic legal history. He blogs at

The Center for Middle East Studies and the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Denver recently co-hosted a lecture by Fadel on “The Crisis in Egypt: Liberalism, Islamism and the Struggle for Democracy.” It was the most intellectually far-reaching analysis of recent events in Egypt I’ve yet heard or read. (The text will appear in a forthcoming issue of Boston Reviewwith several responses.)

After the lecture, I sat down with him for the following discussion.

Postel:  The situation in Egypt today is grim, but you argue that things could be getting even worse. You go so far as to conjure the specter of state failure in Egypt.

Fadel: I think state failure is the best explanation for the January 25th (2011) revolution in the sense that the Mubarak regime had reached the natural limits of its capacity to govern. Corruption had reached such an extent that the state could no longer extract enough value from society to preserve its control over it. The revolution created an opportunity, a moment in time, where Egypt could engage in far-reaching reform of the relationship of the state to society in a way that could give some kind of long-term viability to the state.

Now, with the coup, I think we’re back at square one, meaning that the military government, or the government appointed by the military, lacks the legitimacy to pursue the difficult reforms that are required, and as a consequence, the only source of legitimacy they have is security-related, i.e., war on “terror” (i.e., war against the Muslim Brotherhood). And so what we’re going to see is further entrenchment of the security state.

The security state will be indifferent to structural reforms. In fact, they’ll probably demand a larger share of the shrinking Egyptian pie, and that will simply exacerbate the kinds of problems that Egypt has and leave fewer resources for solving what’s approaching to be existential problems for the survival of the Egyptian state in terms of its ability to fund basic things like education, healthcare, protecting the environment, all of which are seeing catastrophic declines. And there’s no evidence that this is going to change, nor is there any reasonable basis to believe that they will change as long as the number one priority is security-related.

Postel: One of the most disturbing things to me is that there seems to be popular support amongst ordinary Egyptians and across a wide spectrum of the population for the military regime, and personally for General el-Sisi. To what extent are the Egyptian people themselves implicated in this state of affairs?

Fadel: Sadly, I think you’re right, the Egyptian people are implicated in this. I tend to excuse rank and file Egyptians simply because I don’t think they have the same degree of political sophistication as do political leaders, and therefore I don’t really hold them responsible as much as I view them as being victims. Essentially, I see think they’ve been manipulated by their leaders into supporting this, and I understand why.

The situation in Egypt in terms of the objective, day-to-day circumstances of living, have been difficult for a long time and they became more difficult after the revolution and removal of Mubarak. But returning to the security state is precisely the wrong answer, since the security state was responsible for those conditions in the first place. They’re not in a position to solve them, since they created them.

I think part of the problem is that Egyptians have become conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems lie in the hands of a magical ruler who can come and fix everything. They think, on the one hand, that everything is bad because they had a terrible president in Mubarak and then a worse one in Morsi, and now everything will be good because el-Sisi is going to be in charge of everything, without understanding the causal connections between structures, policies and outcomes, and why this is a problem that’s much bigger than one person, or even a group of people, but rather of systematic policies, and that there are vested interests that are opposed to reforms, and inchoate interests that need to be organized to change the status quo. It’s not simply a question of getting the right person.

There needs to be the formation of a public will capable of pursuing the public good, and that’s where the role of politics comes in. This is what’s so disastrous about the coup and the rhetoric behind it — it totally negates politics. It returns things to an era of charismatic leadership that is fundamentally incapable of pursuing reforms even if it wanted to, and I’m not really sure it wants to.


Postel: On July 2, during the mass demonstrations in Cairo, Chris Hayes did a segment on his MSNBC show in which he remarked:

I’m watching this unfold…and I feel quite torn. Because at one level I have zero love for the Muslim Brotherhood or for Mohammed Morsi…the way he’s acted as a kind of quasi-authoritarian figure. At the same time, it does seem to me maybe not the greatest thing for the development of Egyptian democracy for the first democratically-elected government to collapse within a year, under threat of essentially a military coup. How should I be feeling about this as an American liberal, watching this unfold? I want someone to tell me whose side I should be on…

I appreciated the raw honesty of this. It gave expression to the cognitive dissonance and confusion that a lot of liberals and leftists in the West felt.


Fadel: I think there were genuine grounds for opposing Morsi, as there should be in any democracy. It would be an unhealthy democracy where the political leaders have the support of 80% or 90% of the people. That would be a very dangerous development. I think what was problematic about what happened on June 30th was that members of the old regime, in alliance with some members of the opposition, manipulated that to overturn an elected president instead of using lawful channels for dissent, mainly electoral competition.

And we shouldn’t forget the fact that the privately held media is owned entirely by Mubarak-era businessmen. Although Morsi was nominally the head of state, he wasn’t able to purge the state media and fill them with journalists sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

So you had a situation where the most powerful institutions in the state, namely the military and the police, and the most powerful businessmen, were actively manipulating public opinion to overturn a democratically-elected leader against a backdrop of legitimate grievances. Of course there were legitimate grievances. The problem was they were manipulated for an illegitimate end. I think that’s the way we need to understand what happened.

Postel: This gets us back to the role of the Egyptian people themselves, because although, as you point out, there was manipulation of this mass popular discontent for nefarious ends, when the coup actually took place at the conclusion of those protests, we saw millions of Egyptians celebrating jubilantly.


Fadel: Well, of course they bear responsibility ultimately. People always have to take responsibility for their condition. Whether they’re personally responsibility or not, collectively they are. And I think collectively it showed the relative political immaturity of the Egyptian public in believing that they could pin all their problems on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

I think clearly Egypt’s problems have not disappeared. They’ve gotten worse. And they probably will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future because now we have a political and security crisis in addition to the economic crisis. So I think it’s going to take a while before people realize that they were snookered.


Postel: The repression under the military regime is now extending beyond just Islamists – liberal and secular Egyptians are now seeing their rights and liberties attacked as well. Some of them are now, if you will, “getting religion” (no pun intended) about what’s happening, as the repressive state apparatus comes after them. Some are saying, well, too little, too late. What’s your take on the state of repression in Egypt today?


Fadel: Well, I think one of the outcomes of the coup was the notion that we don’t need politics in Egypt because the people have delegated the army to take care of their problems. That was the whole point of el-Sisi’s call for delegation from the Egyptian people. And so of course now, what’s the role for politics — ordinary politics, electoral politics, political parties, freedom of expression, freedom to criticize the government — when the people have given the military this blank check to protect them? And so there’s no place anymore for politics, whether it’s Islamist, or liberal or socialist, because the military and the police dominate the field. And I think it took them a little bit of time to realize that. But I don’t really think it took a genius to predict that this was where it would go.


Postel: What’s your assessment of the role that Egyptian liberals have played in the journey from Tahrir Square and the January 25th (2011) revolution to the June 30th (2013) demonstrations and the coup, up to the present moment?


Fadel: Unfortunately, I think they’ve played a negative role. They’ve contributed to the crisis that we’re experiencing today. Although they’re not necessarily politically powerful in terms of their ability to generate votes, I think a lot of them, particularly somebody like Mohamed ElBaradei, because of his international legitimacy, his criticism of Morsi and the transition I think really undermined the ability of the Egyptian state to defend itself, to defend its legitimacy against this coup. The fact that he went to Europe and accused Morsi of recreating an authoritarian state really helped pave the way for a coup. So it’s only a little ironic that ElBaradei, after having paved the way for a coup and trying to legitimize the coup, and actually having served as an official in the government appointed by the military, ended up having to flee Egypt for Europe because he was shocked, scandalized, by the use of violence, when we know that violence is a normal consequence of military coups.

So I think there’s a mixture here of, for lack of a better term, political naiveté and an unwarranted sense of political entitlement that led Egyptian liberals to collaborate with the most authoritarian elements of the Egyptian state instead of accepting a role of an opposition to a flawed civilian-elected government, as all civilian-elected governments in democracies are. They could have exercised a little bit of patience. Maybe it would have taken 10 years for them to develop really functional and effective political parties. But today what’s the outlook? Much worse, I think.


Postel: To be fair, not all Egyptian liberals supported the coup. Some strongly opposed it — Amr Hamzawy, for example.


Fadel: Yes, that’s true.


Postel: What role do you think the United States should play in Egypt’s political crisis at this point?


Fadel: That’s a difficult question. The United States has played such a bad role in Egyptian politics for the last 40 years, since Sadatabandoned the Soviet Union and embraced the United States. The US brand has been so tarnished in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine what kind of positive role it could play. In fact, one of the most devastating charges that the Morsi regime had to deal with was that it was collaborating with the Americans. This was one of the more bizarre accusations, that the Muslim Brotherhood was in cahoots with the United States, that they were US agents, agents of Zionism and American imperialism — simply because the United States was acting in a reasonable fashion, respecting democratic elections.

So it’s really hard to know what the United States could do, even assuming it wanted to help Egypt, because right now everybody thinks the United States isacting against it. And so my personal preference is for the United States to take a stance of neutrality. I mean, I think the United States should stop military aid to Egypt. Not because it wants to support this party or that party, but it should tell Egypt very simply, look, if you guys think that we’re playing such a corrosive, detrimental role, then we are happy to cut all our ties. You don’t want us? Fine. I think that would be the most positive thing for the long-term health of the Egyptian-US relationship.

Right now, as an Egyptian, I think it’s crucial for Egypt to have good relations with the United States, but in the right way, one that backs civil society, not the military. But Egypt right now is not ready for that, because the United States, due to its history with Egypt, is too tarnished to be a credible interlocutor. So shrink the size of the US staff in Egypt. The embassy there is massive. Say okay, we’re going to bring back all but essential personnel. We’re going to stop all military cooperation, we’re going to stop further military sales, until you guys work it out. Because we don’t want to be blamed by anybody. I think that would be the best thing the United States could do.

Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran (2006) and the co-editor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011) and The Syria Dilemma (2013). His website is here. On Twitter: @DannyPostel


Filed under Uncategorized

Mission Accomplished? Syria, the Antiwar Movement, and the Spirit of Internationalism

Danny Postel


The American peace movement has been celebrating what it sees as its victory on Syria. “The U.S. is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savoring.” Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy vaunts “How We Stopped the U.S. Bombing of Syria”.

This turn of events is “something extraordinary – even historic,” writes my good friend Stephen Kinzer, coming from a different but overlapping perspective. “Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country,” writes the author of the classic Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. “This is an exciting moment,” he rhapsodizes, “the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.”

The tireless progressive journalist David Sirota, whom I admire a lot, extols “How the Antiwar Majority Stopped Obama.” The opposition of “angry Americans” to the administration’s push for a military strike, he contends, proved “absolutely critical” and is “why there now seems to be a possibility of avoiding yet another war in the Middle East.”

I completely understand this jubilance. And yet it leaves me feeling uneasy.

Let me be clear: I too was against the Obama administration’s proposed military strike on Syria. I thought it strange that after two and a half years of doing essentially nothing about the deepening crisis in Syria, the White House suddenly decided to act with such a sense of urgency that it was unwilling to wait for the United Nations inspection team to complete its job. As if the world should just trust American claims about weapons of mass destruction. That went really well last time.

I also thought chemical weapons were exactly the wrong issue. To paraphrase Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, why draw a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons but not at 100,000 dead? Or at two and a half years of crimes against humanity? The vast majority of the civilians killed since the Syrian uprising began in March of 2011 have died by means of conventional, not chemical weapons.

I agreed wholeheartedly with the International Crisis Group that the Obama administration’s case for action was based on “reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” who “have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence.”

Hinging its case on chemical weapons turned out to be a huge strategic mistake as well. Russia cleverly short-circuited the Obama administration, taking advantage of the thinness of its case. So Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be removed from the equation – then what? The Assad killing machine, which was overwhelmingly nonchemical to begin with, can continue unfettered on its rampage. Chemical weapons issue – solved. The killing fields of Syria – no end in sight.

Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

Bernadine Dohrn on the Anti-War Movement

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Allan Sekula

ALLAN SEKULA     1951-2013

Terry Smith

During the last hour of the overnight ferry journey from Karlskrona, Sweden, to Gdynia, Poland, the port of Gdansk enters then entirely fills your horizon. For centuries one of the great, and most-contested, seaports of the world, it was in 1980 the birthplace of the Solidarity uprising. As Poland embraces “turbo-capitalism,” its most visible parts have erupted into energetic life. Even the ferry takes a full half hour to disgorge its cargo of trucks.  Remembering Allan Sekula’s fascination with this place, and its role within his major series of photographs Fish Story 1989-1995, we know to take such self-serving narratives with skepticism, to treat their fabulating with reserve, to look around us (as we do within his photographs) for the work that is actually being done––or not done when it should be done––by skilled individuals and dedicated machines. Continue reading

1 Comment

August 15, 2013 · 4:24 pm

On the Zimmerman Case Verdict . . .

 Charles W. Collier


            I have discussed the Zimmerman case at some length in “The Death of Gun Control: An American Tragedy,” 40 Critical Inquiry (forthcoming 2014); available in advance of print publication as Critical Inquiry Web Exclusive at:

            Obviously I discuss the Zimmerman case most specifically in Part 2.  But I would also point to the discussion in Part 4, where I go into the broader historical background of what I call “a radical and expansive American philosophy of freedom that dates back at least to the early nineteenth century.”  If you look at the Bill Bell cases I discuss in note 58, you begin to see what a departure this was from the English background to our law, and specifically from the English doctrine of the “duty to retreat”:

          In 1885, for example, the highest court in Texas overturned a second-degree murder conviction in a self-defense case–not because the jury had been told the defendant had a duty to retreat, but because the jury had not been told the defendant did not have a duty to retreat:

            [T]he defendant, if unlawfully attacked by the deceased, was not bound to retreat in order to avoid the necessity of killing him. . . .  [T]he law of this State does not require retreat under any circumstances.

          Even more remarkably, when the case was retried, that same court overturned a manslaughter conviction because the jury had not specifically been instructed that the “reasonableness” of self-defense “must be determined by what might have appeared reasonable to the defendant at the time of the homicide, and not by subsequent developments as laid before the jury in the shape of evidence.”


This is where “Stand Your Ground” came from!  The contemporary sources I find most helpful in understanding this departure from English law are Dimsdale, Turner, and Tocqueville, as in notes 60 and 99.  Essentially (they are saying) you cannot expect the rugged frontiersman–literally, out to conquer a new world–to have the placid temperament of an Illinois corn farmer.

            As for the Zimmerman case verdict, “I told you so” (Part 2):


            Trayvon Martin’s killer, a certain George Zimmerman, displays more than his share of grandiosity, narcissism, and racism.  But he has other things on his mind, too.  In the United States ca. 2012, on a dark and stormy night in Florida, there is no reason to presume that Martin is unarmed.  It is not obvious.  In fact, the opposite presumption may be more accurate:  that Martin is armed.  (In Florida, the local inhabitants increasingly settle their arguments over girlfriends in bars and children’s basketball games with heavy weaponry.)  That is precisely why news accounts made a point of emphasizing that, in this case, the presumption was rebutted:  As it turned out, Martin was, in fact, unarmed.

            But Zimmerman does not know this yet.  He worries out loud over the phone to the police dispatcher:

            [T]here’s a real suspicious guy . . . .  This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.  It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about. . . .

            Now he’s just staring at me. . . .

            [N]ow he’s coming towards me. . . .

            He’s got his hand in his waistband.  And he’s a black male. . . .

            Yup, he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands.

But even if Martin has a gun, so too does Zimmerman.  Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, if Zimmerman feels threatened he can shoot first (which he does) and ask questions later.  (It is, after all, a dark and stormy night.)  He is “justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat” in his home, in a vehicle, or indeed in “any other place where he . . . has a right to be.”  (Deadly force may be used if he “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself . . . or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”)  In a society in which anyone and everyone may have a gun, Zimmerman certainly doesn’t want Martin to shoot first–nor does the law require him to take that chance.  With ever more guns in circulation, it becomes ever more “reasonable” to suspect (or fear) that someone else has one–and to shoot first!

. . . because a man cannot tell, when he seeth men proceed against him by violence, whether they intend his death or not.

In this Hobbesian “war of all against all,” “there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation;” thus, it may be “reasonable” to attack one’s neighbor preemptively, if self-defense might later be inadequate for self-preservation.  Here is fertile ground for miscalculation; the criminal law and the law of large numbers work together to ensure that such miscalculations are many, regular, and predictable.  (And, under Florida law, they may be justifiable or excusable too; Zimmerman was so worried about guns that he went back to Martin’s lifeless body, and moved it–”to check for weapons.”)

Leave a comment

July 16, 2013 · 11:14 am