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One Finch, Two Finch, Red Finch, Blue Finch: Measuring Concentration and Diversity in the Humanities, A Response to Wellmon and Piper

Jordan Brower and Scott Ganz

 

Introduction

In “Publication, Power, and Patronage: On Inequality and Academic Publishing,” Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper motivate their study in a laudable spirit: they seek to expose and root out elitism in the name of a more egalitarian and truly meritocratic academy.[1] That the study at the same time makes a claim for more studies of its kind— “What we need in our view is not less quantification but more” (“P”)—seems justifiable based on the results it found. We find, then, an argument for the continued practice of the digital humanities (DH).

But this study is not DH as we typically understand the term. Wellmon and Piper are not producing new software or a digital archive, or offering an interpretation of a large corpus of books using quantitative methods. Rather, they are humanists making a claim about social organization, where the organization in question is their own field. This is an important distinction to make. Rather than holding their study to a research standard held by other digital humanists, we ought instead to evaluate their work using the rubrics of disciplines that answer similar kinds of questions.

Specifically, Wellmon and Piper assess the heterogeneity of university representation in top humanities journals as an indicator of the extent to which publication practices in the humanities are corrupted by “patterns and practices of patronage and patrimony and the tight circulation of cultural capital” (“P”). Perhaps unknowingly, the authors find themselves a part of a long and contentious literature in the social sciences[2] and natural sciences[3] over the creation and interpretation of metrics for diversity (and its opposite, concentration) that continues through the current decade.[4] The authors put themselves into the shoes of ecologists seeking novel data in unexplored terrain. Traditional bibliometric indicators of status and concentration in the sciences that rely on citation and coauthorship lose traction in the humanities.[5] As such, the authors seek to do what any good ecologist might: they go out into the field and count species.

In their analysis, the field is represented by articles published in four prominent humanities journals, and observations are individual articles. Observations are grouped into species by examining their university affiliation: is that finch Harvard crimson or Yale blue? Then the raw counts are aggregated into summary metrics that try to capture the concept of heterogeneity. The latter half of their paper presents conclusions drawn from their expedition.

The first two parts of this essay examine a pair of questions associated with this effort. First, how closely does Wellmon and Piper’s constructed measure of heterogeneity reflect what is usually meant by heterogeneity? Second, are the data collected representative of the field of the humanities that they seek to analyze? In our final section, we turn to a brief consideration of the broader cultural and political motivations for and implications of this study.

We conclude that the heterogeneity metric is inappropriate. We also worry that the data may not be representative of the field of the humanities due to numerous recording errors and a lack of conceptual clarity about what constitutes a publication. As two pillars of statistical analysis are the representativeness of the sample and the consistency of measure, we believe the study fails to achieve the level of methodological rigor demanded in other fields. There are many aspects of Wellmon and Piper’s study that live up to the highest standards of scientific method. Our criticism would not have been possible had the authors’ data and methods not been transparent or had the authors not willingly engaged in lengthy correspondence. However, the shortcomings of their quantitative analysis corrupt the foundations of their study’s conclusions.

Our essay is also a call for digital humanists to take seriously the multidisciplinary nature of their project. At a time when universities are clamoring to produce DH scholarship, it is imperative that humanities scholars subject that work to the same level of rigorous criticism that they apply to other types of arguments. At the same time, DH scholars must admit that the criticism they seek is different in kind. This is to say that in order to take DH work seriously, scholars must take the methods seriously, which means an investment in learning statistical methods and a push towards coauthorship with others willing to lend their expertise.

 

Measuring Heterogeneity

The latter half of Wellmon and Piper’s analysis measures the heterogeneity in the data they collect. Their “heterogeneity score,” which is the total number of unique universities divided by the total number of articles, seeks to capture a spectrum from “institutional homogeneity” to “institutional difference” (“P”). They justify their metric through reference to the similar type-token ratio metric of vocabulary richness.

There are two serious problems with Wellmon and Piper’s measure. The first is that heterogeneity is not synonymous with richness. Heterogeneity instead is associated with both richness and evenness.[6] In the present context, richness refers to the number of unique universities represented in each journal. Evenness refers to the extent to which articles are equally distributed among the institutions represented. A good metric for heterogeneity should therefore increase with the number of universities represented and increase with evenness of representation across universities. Wellmon and Piper treat a journal that publishes authors from one university eleven times and authors from nine other universities one time each the same as a journal that publishes authors from ten universities two times each.

Another useful property of a heterogeneity metric is that it should not decline as the total number of observations increases. Whether the ecologist spends a day or a month counting species on a tropical island should not affect the assessed level of heterogeneity, on average. (That said, if an ecologist spends one month each on two different islands and records more observations on the first than the second, that might well indicate greater ecological diversity on the first island.) In this respect, the Wellmon-Piper heterogeneity metric also fails, because larger observation counts will mechanically produce lower scores indicating more homogeneity. (As Brian Richards notes, the type-token ratio, too, faces this shortcoming, which is why linguists assign their subjects a fixed number of tokens.[7]) The probability of observing a first-time publisher decreases with each additional article recorded. Journals that publish more articles (such as PMLA) will therefore tend to have lower heterogeneity scores than those that publish fewer articles (like Representations).

The following thought experiment demonstrates this troubling property of Wellmon and Piper’s heterogeneity score. We take one thousand random samples of sixty articles from PMLA and Representations, journals that are indicated to be approximately equal in their heterogeneity score with respect to PhD institution. We then calculate the mean of Wellmon and Piper’s heterogeneity score across the samples as the number of articles grows from ten to sixty. Figure 1 displays the trend of the mean heterogeneity score for PMLA (black solid line) and Representations (red solid line) (fig. 1). For all article counts, PMLA is identified as considerably more heterogeneous than Representations. However, when evaluated at the average number of articles per year (represented for PMLA and Representations by the black and red dotted lines, respectively), Representations receives a higher mark for diversity (indicated by the fact that the dashed red line exceeds the dashed black line). This is the type of perverse outcome a metric for heterogeneity should seek to avoid.

Standard measures of diversity and concentration avoid these pitfalls. They decompose into a function of the equality of the shares across the groups represented and the total number of groups. They are not mechanically tied to the number of observations. One metric of concentration that has both of these characteristics is the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). Use of the HHI and similar indices is widespread. For example, the HHI is used by the US Department of Justice when considering the competitiveness implications of potential mergers. The HHI is one of a class of metrics that are a function of the weighted sum of the shares of overall resources allocated to each group that is observed in a population.[8] The standard HHI equals the sum of the squared market shares of each firm in an industry or, in our setting, the share of the number of articles published in a journal by authors from each university. The range of the HHI thus spans from 1/N to 1, where N is the number of firms in an industry. The inverse of the HHI (in other words, 1/HHI) is a commonly used measure of diversity (in ecology, the inverse of the HHI is referred to as a “Hill number”). This metric corresponds to the number of firms in an industry in which all firms have equal market share with the equivalent HHI as the one under observation. As such, it is often called the “effective number” of firms. Imagine an industry with four firms, one with half of the market share and the others with one sixth each. The HHI equals 1/22 +3· 1/62 = 1/3, which is the same as the HHI in an industry with three firms with equal market share. The effective number of firms is, therefore, three.
 Figure 2 recreates figure 1 using the effective number of universities metric (fig. 2). PMLA remains considerably more diverse with respect to PhD affiliation than Representations for all sample sizes. However, now the difference in the number of articles published per year creates a larger divergence between the estimated level of institutional diversity across the two journals.


Heterogeneity Comparisons Over Time and Across Journals

Using the effective number of universities metric changes many of the quantitative conclusions in the study. The trend toward journals publishing more articles over time and the differences between the count of articles published annually across the four journals leads Wellmon and Piper to mistakenly identify more recent and larger journals as less heterogeneous. For example, we reproduce Wellmon and Piper’s Figure 4, which examines the trend in heterogeneity across the four journals over time, using the effective number of universities metric in figure 3 (fig. 3). In the figure, the black line indicates the heterogeneity with respect to the authors’ current institution and the red line indicates heterogeneity with respect to the authors’ PhD institution. Wellmon and Piper’s graph indicates a long-term decline in heterogeneity, but little change since 1990. While we also observe little change since 1990, the “effective number of firms” metric indicates a longer-term trend towards greater diversity.

Similarly, we come to different conclusions about the relative level of heterogeneity across the four journals.[9] 
In table 1, we present the effective number of universities for each journal both in terms of the current and PhD university affiliations of the authors, along with 95 percent confidence intervals, using the methodology in Chao and Jost.[10]

We find that New Literary History (NLH) and PMLA are the most heterogeneous, both in terms of the author’s current and PhD affiliations. Representations is the least heterogeneous. Critical Inquiry (CI) falls in the middle. Unlike Wellmon and Piper, we find this ranking to be consistent across the types of author affiliation. The journals with more diverse institutional representation in terms of current author affiliation are also more diverse in terms of where the author received their PhD. However, we do observe that there is greater disparity across journals when examining the diversity of the authors’ current affiliation than the PhD affiliation.

 

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Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Françoise Meltzer

 

Tzvetan Todorov—the literary theorist, historian, philosopher, structuralist and essayist—died in Paris at the age of seventy-seven in February of this year. His importance to every one of these disciplines and subjects to which he turned his attention is enormous. A Bulgarian born in 1939, Todorov emigrated to Paris to do graduate work and was the student of Roland Barthes. His Bulgarian experience under Soviet communism gave him a mistrust of “everything the state defends or that is related to the public sphere.”[1] But the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 changed that mistrust: “I felt like I was no longer conditioned by those childhood and teenage years living in a totalitarian world.” Thus it is unsurprising that Todorov’s intellectual trajectory took a strong turn toward ethics and politics beginning in the early eighties (as if sensing the end of Soviet communism) and continued until his death.

tzvetan-todorov-150-g

Todorov famously began as a structuralist, well-schooled in the Russian formalism of the twenties and the Prague School of Linguistics of the thirties. Early in his career, he translated the Russian formalists into French, Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes (1965). One might say that his form of structuralism is politically “safe” to a certain extent, searching as it does for repetitive patterns and deep meanings that are frequently unrelated to their manifestations (plot events and narrative systems, for example) and certainly unconcerned—at least overtly—with the hegemony of the state. Literature and Signification (1969) continued in this vein and also put him on the map as the scholar who created a renaissance in rhetoric.

Todorov continued with structuralist analyses, which he combined with semiotics and a study of narrative systems (along with Gérard Genette, Barthes and the early Fredric Jameson). For this approach to narrative, in collaboration with Algirdas Julien Greimas and Barthes, Todorov coined the term narratology. All types of narrative, he wrote, “pertain less to poetics than to a discipline which seems to me to have solid claim to the right of existence, and which could be called narratology.[2] The sentence is taken from an article, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” which analyzed what Vladimir Propp had called “functions” (in Russian fairy tales)— the succession of recurring plot elements that Propp showed could be mapped, or listed, in succession. Todorov added, contra Propp’s system, that the relationship between the units (or functions) cannot be only one of succession, but must “also be one of transformation.”[3] For example, a narrative may present events at the beginning of its récit, but the reader will see them differently if the same events return at the end. And yet even this syntactical power of transformations is not what is to be valued most in a narrative, adds Todorov. Narratives can be further broken down into the gnoseological type or of the mythological type; more layers need to be added to parsing any given plot events. Even in the early seventies, then, he was already drifting away from structuralism and its ancestors, the Russian formalists. Though Todorov continued in semiotics, structuralist approaches and narratology—for example, his 1971 The Poetics of Prose, which continues to analyze narrative (récit) on which the article in question draws— something else was brewing.

Well-known and much admired in France, by 1970 Todorov had authored many books and had helped to found, with Genette, the journal Poétique. In the same year, shortly before the Poetics of Prose, one of Todorov’s works was so immediately important and successful, that it was added to the French school curriculum the year after the book’s appearance, and is still there today. That book is The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. This is not the place to summarize Todorov’s famous argument. Suffice it to say that to this day, no student or scholar can write on the fantastic without alluding to Todorov’s seminal work on the subject.

But, to repeat, something else was brewing. Todorov’s early life under communism had profoundly marked him: “Today I believe,” he said in a late interview, “that my initial interest in questions of form and structure in literature . . . was closely linked to the fact that debating ideas was impossible in a totalitarian country.” If you wanted to say anything about literature in that context, he continued, you had the choice “between serving the purposes of official propaganda and focusing on the formal aspects of the text alone.” So he concentrated solely on the formal aspects of texts. By the early eighties, however, as Soviet communism was collapsing, Todorov was changing. In 1982 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other appeared in France (the English translation two years later). The book, a type of echo and counter-response to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, examines the Mesoamerican Indian population confronting the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century. Tocqueville, curiously enough, had written that while the Spanish had been horrible in their treatment of native populations, they were nonetheless unable to eradicate the native populations of North America. The United States succeeded in doing this, continues Tocqueville, “with felicity” and “without shedding any blood.” This appalling and absurd conclusion notwithstanding, Todorov writes his study with a different question: to what extent did the fact that the Aztecs had no notion of the Other, and that the Spaniards had a very clear and (let us say) xenophobic and racist one, contribute to the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and the Caribbean? Could it explain the Aztec passivity in the face of the brutal conquerors? Todorov mainly consulted the archives of Columbus and “then of his contemporaries and companions.” Todorov concludes his work with the following: “For Cortés, the conquest of knowledge leads to the conquest of power. I take the conquest of knowledge from his example, even if I do so in order to resist power.”

As of Conquest, Todorov will deeply engage in the issues of ethics in the political realm. He does not believe that history obeys a system, he writes in conclusion, but believes rather that “to become conscious of the relativity . . . of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”[4] If Michel Foucault explored the tectonic shifts that occurred and caused changes in varying power structures in varying eras and discourses, Todorov is more optimistic; he believes that uncovering historical “shifts” can create a shift in itself, such that an event can be wrested from its underpinnings and historical behaviors can be somewhat modified in turn. “I myself,” says Todorov in another interview, “aspire less today than in the past to produce a text reducible to its theses; I try to enrich it with stories, other people’s or my own, and, as we know, stories give rise to interpretations, not refutations.” As one reader of Todorov puts it, he teaches us to eradicate, or deeply to question, the binary of “them and us.” What will follow will be rooted in ethics: On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought (1989); Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (on the “social schizophrenia specific to totalitarian regimes,” 1991); A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer ’44 (on the French Resistance’s killing of thirteen pro-Nazi militia and the Nazi revenge murder of thirty-eight Jews in Saint-Armand, 1994); The Fragility of Goodness (on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews, 1999); A New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2003, two years after September 11 and on the eve of the Iraq war); Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between (his intellectual autobiography, 2002)—and too many other books and articles to mention here.[5] “Only totalitarianism,” writes Todorov, “makes it obligatory to love one’s country” (a statement we would do well, at present in the United States, to keep in mind).

“From now on,” writes Todorov in 2007, “I will stick by and large to the humanist family. This unique perspective prohibits me from any claim to an evenhanded clarification of the other families: I shall systematically privilege one of the voices in the dialogue of the past.”

This, from a man who had, in the first half of his career, carefully avoided polemics. The same year, he published Literature in Danger, a manifesto that argues that current trends in criticism have made it an “object of closed, self-sufficient, absolute language,” a “smothering corset” enclosed by “factual formal games, nihilistic whining and solipsistic egotism.” Literature must be freed from the “formalist ghetto that is of interest only to other critics.” Formalism, nihilism and solipsism are endangering the literary enterprise, he wrote.

Todorov’s greatest influence was Raymond Aron, but also, again just to name a few, Michel de Montaigne, Benjamin Constant, Jean-JacquesRousseau, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mikhail Bakhtin, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (whom Todorov translated), and Edward Said. Human rights, Islam, the question of Europe, economic conditions, racism, genocide, the Holocaust, humanism, colonization, fanaticism, ethics and moral philosophy—these were, to name the most salient, Todorov’s passionate concerns as of the early eighties. Rather than attacking other critics, “who are not there to contradict you and you can ridicule the person to your heart’s delight,” Todorov came to prefer a more measured and solitary approach: “Asserting your conception of the world without worrying too much about other people’s conceptions seems to me at once more difficult and more interesting.” As his friend Thomas Pavel put it recently, what Todorov wished to express above all in his writings was “his simple and sincere friendship for humanity and its cultures.”

After the murder of a French priest last year in France, Todorov remarked, “To systematically bomb a town in the Middle East is no less barbaric than to slit somebody’s throat in a French church. Actually, it destroys more lives.” He was against all forms of fanaticism, from the left or the right: “Certain ideological stances could be defined as the simple refusal to recognize this or that boundary,” he wrote, as if anticipating contemporary arguments about borders. His approach to history was ethical; his concern was with how to treat the representation of other cultures; he believed that self-knowledge develops through knowledge of the Other; and he held that goodness can exist even in the evilest of contexts.

In his eulogy to his teacher, “The Last Barthes,” Todorov noted that he owed his mentor a great deal. And now, after Barthes’s death, writes Todorov, “I will owe him more every day.” Todorov opened his Barthes encomium with these words: “He belonged, in France, to that small group at the top of the intellectual pyramid; he was one of those writers whose books you were always supposed to have read, books which could become the subject of conversation among strangers.”[6] The same may be said of Todorov, and a great many of us will continue to owe him more every day.

 

[1] Sewell Chan, “Tzvetan Todorov, Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil, Dies at 77,” New York Times, 7 Feb. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/europe/tzvetan-todorov-dead.html

[2] Tzvetan Todorov, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” Diacritics 1 (Autumn 1971): p.44.

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (Norman, Okla., 1999), p. 254.

[5] All dates refer to the original French publication.

[6] Todorov, “The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 454, 449.

 

TODOROV and CRITICAL INQUIRY

The following essays (and interview) by Todorov were published in past issues of the journal.

“The Verbal Age,” trans. Patricia Martin Gibby, Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 351-71.

“The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 449-54.

“Critical Response: ‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture,” trans. Loulou Mack, Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986): 171-81.

Interview with Danny Postel, “Moving Targets,” trans. Gila Walker, Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 249-73

(Danny Postel’s interview is available to read for free on our website http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu)

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Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

David Palumbo-Liu

In “The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying ‘No’ to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality,” an essay derived from his op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Gabriel Noah Brahm makes a number of pronouncements regarding the death of this and the lack of value of that. One core element of his essay regards a concern we share—the new presidency of Donald Trump and the notion of a posttruth and indeed even postreason age. However, we differ in terms of what or who might be responsible for this state of affairs. Brahm argues that disdain for the truth began with postmodernism and other associated intellectual ills. Happily, according to him, the academy has now been delivered from such evils by a historical shift evident in the recent votes in Philadelphia at the meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Brahm’s argument is that the votes at the Modern Language Association help us understand a fundamental shift away from political correctness, which Brahm describes as:

The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

He declares “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology” based on the fact that the Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. As coeditor, with Cary Nelson, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Brahm has more than a passing interest in the topic.

To seriously address the issue of Brahm’s assertion that Israel is a “progressive cause” would take more space than allotted here, but readers interested in pursuing that line of reasoning, as expounded by Brahm and others, can refer to the volume just cited. Part of what I would say in response can be found in my review of that book, published in Symploké.

Instead of getting involved in what Brahm himself argues is a “complex” issue—Israel-Palestine—I will use this opportunity to focus specifically on what actually happened at the MLA, as those events occasioned Brahm’s op-ed.

I argue that much of what transpired at MLA smacked of the white-supremacist tactics and thematics we associate with Trump (amongst them his signature attacks on “political correctness,” which indeed sound a lot like Brahm’s), and that, pace Brahm, it is precisely the fields Brahm associates with “p.c.” that provide us with the tools we need to understand what happened in Philadelphia and also what is going on with our new presidential administration.

Let us thus turn to “the facts” and not Brahm’s opinions. Let’s look at two public debates which took place on the floor of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA that show the use of Trumpist tactics and thematics—in both cases the truths and facts that Brahm wishes to rescue were explicitly suppressed by the so-called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which trampled on precisely those rights. Rather than, as Brahm glosses the events, “effectively vindicat[ing] both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will,” the antiboycott vote exhibited the antiboycott side’s political will precisely to abrogate academic freedom and academic responsibility, to shut down dialogue and is so doing violate the basic premises of academic inquiry.

First, a resolution was put forward that decried the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, and placed the blame for that on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now the Palestinians themselves and various international human rights groups have indeed borne witness to both these groups impinging on their rights—I have no argument there. But conspicuous in its absence was any mention whatsoever of the state of Israel and its own responsibilities in this area.

That resolution, put forward by the antiboycotters, is completely of a piece with the argument voiced by the white supremacist Trump campaign that “black on black” killing is more to blame for black deaths than police violence, which is in turn of a piece with the violence of the US state as exemplified in the so-called justice system and the prison industrial complex. In much the same way, denials of academic freedom to Palestinians are an essential part of the virtual apartheid system that exists in Israel and indeed preserves Israel in its current form.

Resolution proposer Russell Berman’s disingenuous offer to table the resolution in a spirit of “reconciliation” was seen by many for what it was—a desire to prevent even discussing the question of whether or not Israeli state policies might play any role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Debate of the issue would inevitably have exposed facts about Israel’s constant violations of academic freedom that its supporters are eager to keep concealed. The bad faith of Berman’s offer of “reconciliation” was made patently clear when, despite the calls to allow debate, he refused to withdraw his motion to table the resolution and discussion of it indefinitely.  At that moment of silencing, the bad faith behind the claim that we should not boycott institutions because we want to preserve “dialogue” was exposed; at that point a free inquiry into the “truth” was terminated by those attesting to argue “for scholars’ rights.”

In removing the possibility of discussing such a fundamental issue, Berman and those who voted for his motion violated one of the basic principles of something they always hold out to be our beacon: liberalism. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Those mounting analyses of political and cultural phenomena from the standpoints of postcolonial studies, studies in race and ethnicity, and others Brahm associates with “political correctness” are not “expressing” “indignation” when they see such blatant acts of hypocrisy emanate from self-anointed guardians of the liberal west—they are issuing an indispensable analytical critique that, among other things, helps shed light on how the rhetoric of “reconciliation” may be used to cover the tracks of exertions of raw power.

Second, the antiboycott resolution that, having been passed by the same assembly, must now be voted on by the general membership, demands that the MLA “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” This resolution amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutionally protected form of free speech (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 1982). The resolution makes even the act of endorsing, in a nonbinding manner, a boycott of Israel impossible—the MLA would be acquiescing to the same kind of silencing we saw in Russell Berman’s motion to table discussion on Resolution 3 indefinitely.

Given that Trump has vowed to destroy BDS, if it passes that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him, and at the expense of its own members and of their right to deliberate the issue. But beyond that, passing that resolution would also set a terrible and destructive precedent—it would mean that it is permissible to deny MLA members the right to comment on what the United States Supreme Court holds to be a basic right.

In both of these cases and many others during the convention, scholars engaged in critiques of colonial knowledge, of gender epistemologies, of privilege and power and race had more than enough material upon which to shine a light. In numerous other scholarly associations that do not regard histories of race and colonialism merely as matters of “trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” the logic and justice of the boycott has made itself felt. These associations not only engage with the facts of racial discrimination and injustice that the Trump administration is likely to make all the more urgent in both Israel and the US but also recognize that the study of these facts requires scholars also to take action for justice. In this, they represent not the past, nor a “trend,” but an indispensable and permanent element of both current and future scholarship.

Indeed, no matter what the general membership decides in the spring, it’s hard to imagine that even if the antiboycott measure is passed this will be a sign of the “end” of anything—the Modern Language Association voted down a resolution to support the anti-apartheid boycott after all. With truth comes power, and the more this issue is debated, the stronger the case for BDS appears. This is why opponents of the boycott resolution felt debate had to be tabled and a resolution to deprive scholars of their right to free speech introduced.

While the move to table the resolution placing the blame for Palestinian suffering solely on them was voted passed by the Delegate Assembly, one should note that the margin of that vote was exceedingly slim: eighty-three “yes,” seventy-eight “no” to table—it passed by the narrowest margin of any of the resolutions, five votes.   The antiboycott resolution also won by a very small margin—eight votes out of a total of 194 vote cast. The vote against the resolution to endorse the BDS call was the widest, seventy-nine “yes” ; 113 “no.” However, it is important to put this in perspective. That a small handful of volunteers could muster a 40 percent vote in favor—with both presidential candidates, the governor of New York, numerous state legislatures, two hundred college presidents, twelve past presidents of the MLA, and major Israeli organizations aiding indirectly or directly the other side—is remarkable. And with the Trump administration bent on endorsing more settlement building, and more violations of human rights, it is highly likely that the pro-boycott side will grow in strength.

 

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The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying “No” to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Gabriel Noah Brahm

In Philadelphia recently (7 January 2017), Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only seventy-nine delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup de grace comes in June, with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal—which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to ninety-three—to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.

And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.

Second, it was a victory for facts over trendy “post-truth” epistemology—a rejection of the “alternative facts” put forward by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, in their trumped up charges against the Jewish state.

And third, it signaled the waning of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large, among citizens appalled equally by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.

P.C. and BDS Are Dead Letters

Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p. c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, or global capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p. c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.

So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum—or rather it comes out of precisely the kind of vacuum of informed judgment that p. c. labors to produce.

It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (ultra-left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision, and injustice of this Manichean myth-making, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly—in effect if not in intent—against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.

Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy around the world.

The anti-BDS vote thus effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudoacademic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p. c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the association’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.

Twitter Politics: The Alt-Left Learns from the Alt-Right that Learned from the Alt-Left

It wasn’t just Trump voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional universe, one in which everybody’s preferred “narrative” all by itself (cut loose from actual states of affairs) competes to convince the credulous, was imagined long ago at places like Yale, Duke, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated the move from truth to “post-truth” decades ago, with what were then au courant doctrines of simulation, deconstruction, discourse and social construction of reality.

Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed, Twitter, and in the blogosphere. At a time when both presidential candidates and scholar-activists, like Steven Salaita and his supporters, make names for themselves with ribald tweets and vulgar blog posts, serious scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately for both Israel and the MLA, a return to common sense, common decency, reason, and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention this year. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.

For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.

They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the discriminatory nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.

It worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts, period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.

R. I. P. Identity Liberalism, Long Live the MLA!

So, is this the end of business as usual for the past twenty-five years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has tended to crowd out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues?

Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused, in a much-discussed op-ed, that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if only real liberals—in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law—took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p. c. identity politics coupled with neglect of class-based concerns) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future,one in which an outdated faux radicalism that has only ever appealed to a tiny minority of citizens no longer drives our American politics into a ditch, maybe!

I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters on the left, in the last presidential election, didn’t seem to find stale identity-politics-as-usual very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appears tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on its list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”

Israel is a Progressive Cause: Put on Your Pussy Hats and Stand With Us

As a “Western” democracy and standard-bearer of a flawed liberal humanism, in a region not known for it, Israel attracts more than its share of critics. But as leading French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, has lately reminded, it is in many ways a “model democracy,” in fact. A place where minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights are respected as equal under the law, and freedom of speech flourishes even under daily threat from terrorism. As a defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of the war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, Israel should attract admirers.

While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over anti-Semitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. One sees more clearly than ever that BDS—understood as a symptom of a floundering p. c. agenda—is not primarily a “left versus right issue” but rather an occasion for people of integrity, across the board, to stand together for basic intellectual liberty and fundamental pedagogic, professional, and civilizational ethics. This will be key, in the years ahead, to a robust defense of the humanities in terms of the meaning and value of a “liberal education.”

That I personally canvassed for Hillary Clinton in my community (a tiny blue dot in a sea of red) may not be relevant (so did a lot of other people, it wasn’t enough). However, that I also signed a petition to help bring up for a vote at the MLA an emergency resolution—in solidarity with a similar AAUP statement, wary of the new administration vis–à–vis the humanities and supportive of diversity in education—serves as another indication of what I, for one, see as at stake in this discussion.

Perhaps, too, it gives a sense of where the other side is coming from. For, when in Philadelphia I spoke to the urgency of opposing “discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin,” several of the leaders of BDS stood up to speak dismissively—with contempt, even—of the measure. Indeed, it is fair to say they addressed its principled stand with derision. One BDS supporter, sounding a bit like Trump in tone, even mocked it as “namby-pamby.” At least they didn’t say it was for pussies, in spite of their tough-guy rhetoric.

Just Say No to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Now that the President on the United States has instituted a policy of discrimination against refugees and other immigrants on the basis of nationality, the only consistent position is to oppose such discrimination in all its forms.

In this regard, the MLA membership as a whole has the opportunity to send a message, while finally closing the door on distracting debates aimed at singling out one small nation-state as the sole object of a scholarly organization’s ill-informed foreign policy. As Cary Nelson has shown, in an article aptly titled “The BDS Disinformation Campaign at the MLA,” a tendentious case for smashing the Zionist Entity was riddled with false claims from the start. The tissue of “alternative facts” presented in support of the pro-boycott proposal, submitted by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd, thus also helped sink BDS in Philadelphia.

Over the summer, as fair-minded MLA members at large prepare to vote on the (antiboycott) measure that did pass the DA—Resolution 2017-1, proposed by Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman—some will want to go back and peruse Nelson’s detailed article for themselves, comparing it to the shoddy materials the BDSniks proffered. Others will simply conclude that in principle judging this sort of thing is not the business of the MLA—and so will vote a priori to endorse the antiboycott resolution, for that reason alone.

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Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even) A Bachelor Machine for MLA

Somethin’ ’bout sound

Repeatin’ in degree

A voice not mine

Singin’ as a we.

 

You call it boundry conditions

But don’t put your bounds on me.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than weave and dodge and stall?

Some folks say it’s a cokehead’s ball

Some say a cure for all.

 

We’ve heard it from a nutbrown maid

And from a fellow who every day

Takes the blues from Ghent to Aix.

 

Some say ballad’s a slow romantic croon

Others an unsophisticated, moralizin’ folk tune

Neither epic nor lyric

A singable narrative atmospheric

Riddled with discontinuity

Usually endin’ in catastrophe.

 

Bullets have been dancin’ farther back than we can see.

Greeks first cast ballots in 423 BCE.

English ballads been ’round since 13th century.

 

Blatant rhythm alleges its decree

Fluid dynamics

If you want a God damn creed.

 

You call it boundary conditions

But don’t put no shame on me.

 

Fuck your lyric framin’

Fuck your depth of feel

If you’re not willin’ to sing along

Your messin’ with the deal.

 

Is this just an excuse for doggerel?

Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?

Solidarity is a lonely road

That begins at the inaugural.

 

Don’t call it boundary conditions

When you put your pain on me.

 

A little bit south of here, in Washington, D.C.

Next week’s gonna get a whiff of Armageddon

Billionaire racist takin’ over

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Not to mention the Pentagon too.

Wait and see, he’s gonna make the earth

His own private barbeque.

 

Winner of unpopular vote, FBI’s man

Armed and dangerous with his clan

Got the nuclear codes in his hands

(Nuclear codes in his hands.)

 

This ballad cannot fix or change

The course of our collective pain

Even makin’ the lyrics strange

Is no guarantee of liberty.

 

But closer to here than Washington

Is Camden, New Jersey

Home of Walt Whitman

Molderin’ in his grave, you bet

Lilacs wiltin’ on the dooryard

Of these Benighted States.

 

We raised ourselves on the left

Only to get socked by the right

It’s not rocket mechanics

What we’ve got to do is fight.

I used to have a boarder

Till I kicked that boarder out.

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On an Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

The 2016 ballot was stolen

With mirrors and smoke.

The mediocracy, virally swollen

Couldn’t resist a con man’s joke.

 

Watch as castles made of sand

Become law of the land.

 

We all know about voter suppression

Twitterin’ lies in endless succession.

The ballot’s in danger, that’s the dope.

But, say?, did you even vote?

 

The danger that we face

Is not capitalism versus race

But race as capitalism’s sword

To vanquish our fight for all.

 

What’s to be done?

What’s to be undone?

The ying’s not in the yang.

The pang has lost its ping.

 

Turns out the ballad’s no place to be

For a self-respectin’ poet like me.

 

At this MLA convention

The crisis of greatest dimension

Is our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Like we are just a bunch of rubes.

 

We old-time full timers gettin’ replaced

With terrific young scholars

Doin’ the same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students crippled by debts

In the clutches of banker’s threats

 

Regardless of our attitudes to Palestinian or Jew

Enrollments are divin’ like flies into glue.

 

Call it border conditions

But when he stiffed us on the rent

We booted the boundary out.

 

Neo-illiberalism’s on the rise

Provokin’ all to despise

Scorn, resist, chastise.

But a word to the wise ––

Illiberality comes in every guise.

 

Free speech may be a barrel of bare-knuckle lies

Mixed with a soupcon of truths gonna die.

But bein’ trigger happy about what can be taught

Will never liberate thought.

 

To offend or not is not the question.

Neither is transgression, repression, nor discretion.

(Though never underestimate digression.)

 

These days I keep thinkin’

We ought to boycott ourselves.

 

This isn’t a poem about politics

About which I don’t have a clue.

It’s a poem about a form

That sputters and cranks, is mortally torn.

 

Between here and there’s a boundary

I almost found it yesterday

One day I hope to cross it

If history don’t get in my way.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than formula and rhyme?

A whiff of a story

Told with in the nick of time?

 

If there’s more to it than that, my friends

I sure as hell can’t say.

You call it boundary conditions

But I’m not in the mood to stay.

 

There is no freedom without constraint.

No border that’s not a wall.

Good fences sell for 99.99.

Even cheaper on Amazon.

 

There once was a little ballad

That didn’t know its name

Didn’t know it’s pedigree

Didn’t know its taint.

 

This ballad got mixed up in a robbery

And though it wasn’t in the plans

Ended up with blood on its metaphorical hands.

 

The verdict came down swift as a slap:

100 years for stupefaction

150 for personification.

But with parole it will only be

A matter of time before we see

Langue and all that rigmarole

Back on the streets

Purveyin’ an aesthetic trap.

 

There is no moral to this ballad

But, hey!, don’t forget:

Our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Quicker than an Xpress Lube.

 

We old-timers gettin’ replaced

With super young scholars

Doin’ same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students with loans to pay

Turn ‘em into big banks’ prey.

 

Graduate students: unionize!

Don’t let yourselves be patronized!

Let’s turn over half of bloated university president wages

To tenure-track jobs to counter adjunct rages.

 

Call it border conditions if you like.

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Dylan’ got one of those Nobel Prizes

Unsung poets put on more disguises.

Nobels to superstars and pamphleteers!

Not for impecunious balladeers!

 

If songwriters are poets, poets write songs

A Grammy for Baraka woulda righted many wrongs.

For next year’s Nobel we expect to see

(Havin’ shown class strife as metonymy)

Jean-Luc Goddard tapped for economy ––

The Rollin’ Stones for biology.

As for the Peace Prize, which Norway grants

How ’bout Lillyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt?

 

A ballot says, this is what we want.

A bullet does that too.

A ballad’s just lousy fantasy

Goin’ out from an us to a youse.

 

I ha been to the wild wood; mak my bed soon;

I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doun.

Oh, yes, I am poisoned; mak my bed soon

I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doun.

 

Now at end

Of what to tell

Hailin’ you, friend!

Between us dwell!

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On the Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

A ballet’s not a bullet.

A ballot’s no balloon.

But when you add up all we’ve lost

You’ll soon be sighin’ this rune.

 

Call it boundary conditions if you like

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Charles Bernstein

bernstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First presented at “Boundary Conditions of the Ballad,” at the MLA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, January 6, 2017. (“Boundary conditions” was the theme of the convention).

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How to See Palestine: An ABC of Colonialism

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Visiting Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the oppression. It was clarifying to see how the occupation operates and how little it cares what others think of it. It was humbling to see what being an activist really means and how privileged academic activism seems compared to the daily litany of harm to which any person in Palestine is exposed.

I saw elements of many different visual regimes struggling to cohere into what might become a new form. Surveillance is universal, but it’s not a panopticon because the jailers are all too visible. Religion is the justification for settlement, as it was under high imperialism, but there is no desire to convert the unbelievers. Counterinsurgency seeks “full spectrum dominance” but expects the insurgency to be permanent unless its conditions of possibility are removed.

The one thing everyone on all sides agrees on is that it’s all about land—who owns it, who can farm it, live on it, use the rainwater that falls on it, mine the minerals below—and so on. Whatever this is, it’s patently a form of colonialism. So, I decided to use my impressions to create an ABC of occupation.[1] Unlike Nicolai Bukharin’s classic ABC of Communism, this is not a program. It is a report back on the heart of visuality’s own contradiction. That is to say, Palestine is an actually existing possibility for the general condition of social life in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the election of Donald Trump clarifies this issue somewhat. The complicated ways in which someone willing to discuss Palestine gets produced as anti-Semitic surely pale by comparison with the insertion of Stephen Bannon, an old-fashioned Jew hater into the White House.

Perhaps the success of a campaign based on the promise of a “beautiful” wall, xenophobia, hatred of Islam and Muslims and a willingness to separate existing populations will help people understand why Palestine is an example not an exception.

Perhaps.

 

A is for Area A

The regime covers the territory with signs, expressing its intent (fig. 1). These signs are posted wherever Area A, under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), borders with what the regime considers to be the state of Israel. Apparently, the Hebrew and Arabic versions are at variance. The English message is clear: Palestinians are dangerous. Red alert. Less obvious is that Area A covers only 18 percent of what is still referred to as the “West Bank” in a series of increasingly isolated pockets, centered on the Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Nablus. No functional state can be made from these islands. The “two-state solution” is visibly impossible.

mirz_1

Although Area A signs are quite common, there are no others. Where do you enter Area B (largely considered defunct on the ground) and Area C, now considered to be some 63 percent of the West Bank? There are no signs other than the change of rules of engagement and the appearance of settlements, settler buses and the settlers themselves. Palestinians seem to know, as do the settlers and the Israeli Defense Force. So the Area A signs are really for people like me, or Israeli leftists, venturing into the West Bank. I don’t think they work. I hadn’t been there long before the sight of an Area A sign made me relax and feel safe.

 

B is for Benjamin

Here is a sign of colonialism if there ever was one (fig. 2). It depicts the wolf emblem of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Massive in size and posted high above the ground, it is positioned on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, notionally running through Area C but extensively used by tourists going to the Dead Sea. However, according to legend, Joshua assigned this area to Benjamin. So what the sign indicates is that Oslo may have designated the land for Palestinians, but God had already given it to the Jews. Posted signs indicate that the area is officially known to the regime as Judea and Samaria. Benjamin’s land.

mirz_2

The Benjamin sign is only in Hebrew, a message for the colonists alone. But its visual message is clear enough. The howling wolf arcs his body over a cluster of white houses with red roofs, set against green grass and trees. The imperial echo of the Roman wolf cannot be missed. The empire protects. The houses are recognizably those of the illegal settlements that cover every hilltop in the West Bank, which all have such red roofs, in part to make them visible to the Israeli air force as settlements.

The grass and trees transform the scene into an evocation of American suburbia, the picket-fence view of the world. When I took this picture, the temperature was 115 farenheit (45 celsius). Any greenery in a Dead Sea settlement—and there is plenty—is both an ideological production and an environmental fabrication that relies on appropriated water. 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area use one-third of the water accessible to the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank (estimated at over 2.5 million).

 

 

C is for City.

Cities are the testing ground for what is now in formation. Hebron, a notionally Palestinian city, has become the front line of settler colonialism in Palestine. The settlers are expanding, street by street, using their mix of the carceral state, religion and military force. To visit Shuhada Street, formerly a shopping hub of the Palestinian neighborhood, you have to pass through a forbidding checkpoint. The street is closed, all Palestinian shops barred and sealed. Settlers and soldiers patrol to make sure you know who’s in charge.

Although the street has been closed for years, it was nonetheless disturbing to see Stars of David painted on the closed doors, as if in active forgetfulness of those other times and places where such stars were painted on Jewish shops to different ends (fig. 3). More disturbing yet was the thought that perhaps the ends were not that different after all.

mirz_3

At that moment, a settler started to film us from the other side of the street. Losing my temper, I walked towards him, holding my phone so as to film him. He retreated, only to return with a soldier a few moments later. Nothing was said, but the point was made: we were photographing on their sufferance. We left in short order.

 

D is for Desert

In the Naqab desert (called the Negev by the regime and within what Palestinians call the forty-eight, meaning the 1948 border), Bedouins at the village of al-Aqarib told us how their village had been destroyed ninty-eight times by Israeli police (over one hundred times as of October 2016). Their crops have been sprayed with Round Up from the air. The Jewish National Foundation plants millions of trees over as much of the Bedouin land as they can, aided by well-meaning environmentally inspired donations from the United States and elsewhere.

The Bedouin’s animals are arrested as they graze by the Green Patrol—an ecological unit of the regime—and the Bedouin are forced to pay heavy fines to retrieve them. How so? The regime has declared 85 percent of the Naqab to be state land or environmental reserves, so any person or animal setting foot in these areas is trespassing. The camels are arrested just like anyone else. Despite these conditions, we were treated to a lavish and delicious meal at al-Aqarib, according to the dictates of hospitality. A week after we left, the structures were demolished yet again.

 

G is for Giraffe

The Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi has called Israel a “carceral state.” A metonym of this condition, and its complications, can be found at Qalqilya zoo. Qalqilya is almost entirely surrounded by the Separation Wall, as a result of its involvement in the first Intifada. Despite this embattled status, it has within it a zoo, one of the few functioning public leisure spaces I saw.

Like most zoos, its containment of animals is grim. A brown bear paced in his cage relentlessly, as if wanting the Palestinian visitors to see his confinement as their own. Most dramatic is the separate museum that contains a number of stuffed animals. They died in the Intifada, as in the case of the giraffe, who lay down in fear during gunfire, causing her to die from her own blood pressure (fig. 4).

mirz_4

It transpired that she was twelve months pregnant (out of fifteen), and so the zoo director, Sami Khader, turned taxidermist to preserve them. Their spindly bodies are perhaps indicative of his emergent skills or maybe testify to the emaciated condition of the animals under siege. You might see them as martyrs, nonhuman victims of the occupation, or as surrogates, waiting until Palestine is free to welcome other giraffes. It’s a poignant story, and there’s a film being made called Waiting for Giraffes and a published book called The Zoo On the Road to Nablus.

But there were very few visitors other than us to the museum, not least because there was an additional charge for admission. And then there’s always the occupation. During the Intifada the animals that did survive were forced to eat leaves from the trees and other local plants. At some point later, Dr. Sami (as he is known) decided to take animal food and other equipment from Israeli zoos. To do so is to break the boycott of Israel. Palestinians condemn his action.

Is sustaining a public resource and keeping animals alive a reasonable cause? Or is a boycott a boycott? Palestinians demonstrate time and again a long-term steadfast resistance, known as sumud in Arabic, to their own material and physical detriment. There is no simple and painless answer to this dilemma, which is the condition of being under occupation. The proper solution is, of course, an end to that occupation.

 

S is for Settlement

Perhaps the strongest impression that a visitor to Palestine receives is how many settlements there are in the West Bank. No one should imagine that they all can be removed in some future two-state solution. That’s why I initially put West Bank in quotation marks: there is no West Bank. As we were driving, we once went into a valley where there was no settlement. Surprised, I glanced at my watch. It was twenty-five seconds before the next settlement became visible.

Settlement landscape in Palestine is not hard to read because it is intended to dominate and intimidate (fig. 5). The settlements occupy hilltops to command a dominant viewpoint all around. The windows of the buildings face out to have as many eyes engaged in this monitoring as possible. They are close together for supposed safety, built behind defensive walls on land cleared of trees. There’s little left to tell you that Palestinians once farmed the land. Even the slow-growing olive trees have been cleared to make way for fast-growing pines.

mirz_5

The pines are cultivated for timber, but they also serve to make the settlements look established. And they remove a resource from Palestinians. Locals told us that the Israelis had sedated and removed even the local wildlife, like deer and eagles. I have not been able to independently verify this account, but the absence of wildlife was notable.

In this valley, though, one farmer has kept a foothold. Using Ottoman-era documents to demonstrate ownership, the family has been able to cling to their land. Their goat pen is visible at bottom left. Thousands more were not so “lucky.” Their land is gone, appropriated or made useless. The Bedouin at al-Aqarib have similar documents that have not helped them.

 

T is for Tell es Sultan

A ‘tell’ is the name for an archaeological mound created by an abandoned human occupation (fig. 6). In Tell es Sultan, just outside Jericho, the British architect Kathleen M. Kenyon excavated human settlements reaching back to 10,000 BCE. That’s the very beginning of the Holocene, the now concluded window in which stable climatic conditions allowed for settled agriculture and what we call civilization.

mirz_6

Kenyon’s signature “stratigraphic” style allows us to see the unfolding of human possibility from that early period, via the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages to the Romans. Her vertical method emphasizes these changes over time, rather than allowing for a horizontal exploration of how people lived in any one epoch. The discoveries of tombs on the north side of the site were in fact made by Palestinians from the ‘Ein-as-Sultan camp that held 20,000 refugees after 1948. In 1967, all but a thousand or so were expelled into Jordan. The British Museum where some of Kenyon’s objects are now housed makes no reference to the Palestinian role in discovering the tombs or to the camp, which is visible if you know where to look in the site photograph provided. No one does, they all rush past to get to the Egyptian “mummies,” human remains on display for tourist consumption.

Everything changes. An urban civilization fell circa 2530 BCE. It was not restored until 1900 BCE. The big white tourist buses arrive and take a look at what they incorrectly believe to be the fallen walls of Jericho and leave. When you look up at the mountains above you realize what a mote in the eye of geological time these little ripples have been.

 

 

Q is for Qalqilya

Everywhere you look in Palestine, there’s detritus—discarded packaging, demolished housing, unfinished settlements, abandoned cars, electrical components, and trash and waste of all kinds. In Area C, most of the West Bank, no one is authorized to pick up trash—the PA has no authority, and the IDF could care less. In the refugee camps the United Nations steps in. Elsewhere, it piles up or people burn it, contributing to the omnipresent smog.

At the Qalqilya checkpoint at the end of the day, after the last few workers have returned around 7:30 at night, crossing back into Palestine from Israel where they work, no one hangs around (fig. 7). To be sure of getting through in time for work, people will begin queuing again at 2 a.m. to be well-placed when the checkpoint opens at six. It processes one person at a time. Around four thousand will go through.

mirz_7

And so coffee cups, soft drink bottles, bus tickets, and candy wrappers pile up, signs of lives lived in transit (fig. 8). As they sediment into the ground, the impermeable plastics and metals will await some future archaeologist, one who will note with surprise the sudden collapse of a short-lived but apparently consumer-oriented society. They will puzzle over the fences and walls; what purpose could they have served? Perhaps a new legend, like that of Joshua and the walls of Jericho will have been created. It’ll be a long wait for these new investigators; evolution takes place in deep time. The plastics, metals, and rocks won’t mind.

mirz_8

 

Acknowledgements

I visited accompanying the art activist group MTL and with the generous support of many Palestinians, especially Habshe Yossef. I would also like to acknowledge the decolonial activist group Zochrot for arranging my meeting at al-Aqarib. The full web project is still being worked on by techs at USC for security. When available it will be  here. For the time being I have made a PDF of the project that you can access, with either the full text or just the introduction.

That said, all the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

 

[1] These are selected entries from the full ABC available at scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/mirzoeff/index

 

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New Essay from Danny Postel

Danny Postel, a frequent contributor to this blog and the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, has an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which he reviews Laura Secor’s new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examines Iran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.

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The Liquid State

By Jason Adams

 

Solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters… for power to be free to flow, the world must be free of fences, barriers, fortified borders and checkpoints. Any dense and tight network of social bonds . . . is an obstacle to be cleared out of the way. Global powers are bent on dismantling such networks for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity, that principal source of their strength and the warrant of their invincibility.

—Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity)

 

A number of recent articles have focused upon the central culpability of Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder in deposing Flint’s democratically-elected city council and appointing Darnell Early, the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who presided over the unilateral decision-making structures that gave rise to the sourcing of lead-tainted water supplies in the now-famous Flint Water Crisis. A similar number of response pieces have drawn upon Matthew MacWilliams’ University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll of 1,800 respondents, finding that authoritarianism was the single most important factor in the public’s support for Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.

If a shift away from public support for representative democracy and towards more authoritarian modes of government is the driving factor in both cases though, what is at work on a more general level, that undergirds this shift in our time? What my book Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance argues is that such questions cannot be answered without an attentiveness to both political economy and the cultural and technological relations that provide conditions of possibility for such outcomes. In short, if we live in a culture describable by Douglas Rushkoff as one of “present shock,” in which a disposition of “presentism” (or as I prefer, “immediatism”) prevails over one concerned with past and future, in what form might that be expressed politically?

A few of the more perceptive commentaries have come close to answering this via foregrounding the influence of the Michigan-based right-wing think tank The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the development of Governor Snyder’s EFM policy. Writing in Salon, for instance, Paul Rosenberg notes that “what’s happening now is rooted in a state-level attack on democracy . . . [based upon The Mackinac Center’s agenda to] consistently shift the framework of policy debate in a given ideological direction.” Similarly, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow describes Snyder’s EFM policy as “the single most radical policy” in all of American history, one which also derives from a think tank that targeted Michigan professors who uttered Maddow’s name in personal emails.

While Maddow is incorrect—the emergency manager policy at a minimum, is not as extreme as legally-enshrined slavery was—the policy is nevertheless of a piece with it on the level of the unrestrained structural authority thereby enabled, in a form that conjoins the culture and technology of our time with a neoliberal policy apparatus. That apparatus, of course, is one that The Mackinac Center not only celebrates, but directly cultivates through the development of policy documents like the one that lead to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Director of Labor Policy Paul Kersey’s Reconsidering Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act: Restoring Balance to Public Sector Labor Relations.

Initially focused on eliminating public sector labor union influence, The Mackinac Center’s January 2011 document articulates how EFM laws like the Snyder-championed House Bill 4214 could “end with the state appointing an emergency financial manager.” Of course, the effects of such a fundamental shift in governance structures would be felt much more broadly than just labor relations: and, as the think tank noted in March 2011, “The Mackinac Center in January highlighted four ways that the law needed to be improved. The new law implements all of them [HB 4214]”. These included: protecting the EFM from litigation; increasing the scope of the manager’s authority to cover all areas; allowing the manager to move around charter provisions; and, giving the manager more opportunity to reform union agreements.

In effect, what Zygmunt Bauman has described as “liquid modernity” was being written into actual state policy: policy in which, given that the EFM could both enact and suspend laws willy-nilly, “all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice.” First and foremost, of course, this includes the right of the citizenry to enact policy themselves, either through referendum, or through elected representatives. The withdrawal of this right produces a new state-form that, even if its temporary, emergency nature eludes a single, ultimate definition, is certainly articulable as a liquid state, one in which no rights or other guarantees are fixed interminably, and which can be edited and revised as easily as a Wikipedia page could be.

The Flint Water Crisis makes more clear than ever then, that some form of postdemocratic “emergency government” has been introduced, one in which the first and most extreme consequences are reserved for working-class, minority-majority communities in the first world, as they already have been for some time in the third world. Of course, the ongoing epidemic of summary executions meted out by local police departments already set the pace for a full understanding of this development over the past several years, but the potentially fatal poisoning of thousands of children, the elderly, and others lacking fully-functioning immune systems does so with greatly-intensified force.

In our time, legally-sanctioned mass murder in the form Lauren Berlant refers to as “slow death” is becoming normalized on cultural level, such that more often than not, the perpetrators of such acts go unpunished. This is particularly clear upon revisiting the legitimation rhetoric used when Governor Snyder and The Mackinac Center replaced numerous, popularly-elected municipal governments across the state of Michigan with EFMs. In the Flint case, prior to Early, the initial EFM was Michael Brown. Consider then, the following Op-Ed in which The Flint Journal defended Brown’s appointment in January 2012, amidst widespread public outcry:

Some are equating Brown and his colleagues in a half-dozen other local governments in Michigan to dictators. That’s harsh, but with an element of truth. With a swipe of his pen and state approval, Brown can make major changes in city spending, personnel and negotiated contracts; eliminate or combine whole city departments and even merge the entire city with its neighbors. So, yes, we can see why emergency financial managers make a lot of people uneasy. We are reassured, though, from what we’ve seen in Brown’s first report to the state. It’s almost entirely composed of ideas that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to city affairs for the past two or three years. No surprises, but plenty of ideas that were born here. Nobody had the political will or the power to enact them. That’s what’s different now. Brown can make them happen.

In short, The Flint Journal reassured riled-up city residents by appealing to the canard of localism, reassuring them that, even if the newly-appointed EFM was in fact making decisions in a manner that displaced popular authority, he was nevertheless doing so with full awareness of local opinions and desires, “ideas that were born here”. The question this raises however, is whether that in and of itself, is sufficient as an explanation: does an appeal to local needs and supposedly pre-existing desires itself adequately legitimate the unilateral form of EFM-based policy-making, as opposed to duly-elected policy-making via the city council? And if so, is it not simply on the basis that he can make them happen faster, “with a swipe of his pen”, than a deliberative public body could?

****

Legitimations of authoritarianism and the rise of the “authoritarian personality” of course, have been a central concern for social and political theorists dating back at least to the horrors of Nazi Germany, so their reappearance in media outlets like The Flint Journal today should give us pause. As noted, we are living in a time of the liquid state, one in which political authoritarianism with a decidedly opportunist bent is rearing its head to a degree that was previously unimaginable in the US, much as it has been around the world since WWII. What is different today is that there is no substantial counterbalance as there had been in the leadup to fascism in Europe, which means that would-be authoritarians have a much freer hand to create impermanent, “liquid” structures entirely distinct from the attempt at authoritative permanence and solidity experienced there.

Would Flint have seen EFMs displacing the democratically-elected city council in the absence of the larger cultural and technological milieu of Rushkoff’s presentism, or my immediatism – a culture of instantly-deployed social media posting and cellphone-based text-messaging that has displaced the norms associated with periodical media in print and broadcast form? Perhaps, but the fact that US society has grown increasingly comfortable with unmediated, willy-nilly decision-making on an individual level – decision-making that isn’t slowed down by the periodical rhythms of public or representative deliberation so as to instead, simply decide as quickly as possible – probably also has some reverberations on a collective level, too.

A liquid economy is one in which, as Marx and Engels famously argued (picked up on by both Bauman and Marshall Berman), “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… [thus] all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… [and along with this transition,] the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”

Of course, whether this liquification, this constant revolutionizing of the means of production and relations of production simply amounts to capitalists automating production lines and firing workers such that they are disemployed en masse, or police officers engaging in summary execution rather than sending a court case through the established channels, or EFMs sourcing public water from a poisoned/poisoning supply rather than carefully vetting the range of options, ultimately makes little difference. In all cases, the common denominator is that the process of the decision has become liquified and rendered capable of circumventing any form of interlocution. As a result, the EFM’s decisions are made “with a swipe of his pen”, rather than a popularly-elected group of representatives that might deliberate, and agree or disagree.

Of course, the flip side of such a liquid economy is that it is not simply a matter of culture and technology speeding-up “too quickly”. The point is not to argue in favor of slowing down compared to the print- and broadcast-based culture and technology of the past, but to instead think through the manner in which the weapons of the bourgeoisie might become the weapons of the proletariat. US and world political economy will almost doubtlessly remain at speed going forward, no matter what interventions might be made at this point. Thus, the real danger lies in the failure of the working- and middle-classes to match the capitalist speed-up with a speed-up of their own, one that resituates, redirects, and redeploys what doing so is about, on the most basic of levels.

Before that can happen though, we need to understand not only the political and economic sources of the current malaise, but also the cultural and technological sources. Snyder’s EFMs were legitimated in several sources on the basis that “a single manager can respond to problems quickly, as meetings and board approvals are unnecessary.” And of course, as Marx reminds us in the Grundrisse, the origins of such developments cannot be separated from an economic system mobilized by the most efficient disposal of time, which in the US case is historically coupled with the authoritarian nature of American federalism, mobilized by figures like John C. Calhoun to justify slavery.

But the concept of the liquid state also exemplifies the insights of Deleuze and Guattari’s much-cited work A Thousand Plateaus on the question: today, they argue, “the totalitarian State is not a maximum State but rather, following Virilio’s formulation, the minimum State of anarchocapitalism.” While the more common assumption today is that communism and fascism formed the totalitarian nexus of the twentieth century that more enlightened twenty-first century liberalism avoids, they point to Pinochet, whose Chicago Boys-inspired, proto-neoliberal state apparatus served as a central inspiration for the installation of dictatorship in Chile.

Whether the Flint Water Crisis is best read through the lens of the liquid state or minimum state totalitarianism is an open question, but the resistance to representative mediation in states like Michigan today is clear, especially in working-class, minority-majority communities. The fewer the elected officials, the more quickly decisions can be made: temporal expenditures can be greatly reduced once election campaigns, civil deliberation, intergovernmental negotiation, and related features of representative democracy no longer constitute an obstacle to decision-making. In this respect, a minimum state can indeed be authoritarian, despite the fact that economists who call for less government frame the argument as a matter of intensifying liberty.

In a liquid environment, governance is no longer slowed down by a majoritarian citizenry to which elected rulers are at least formally accountable, nor to other officials with whom they are expected to share decision-making processes. Rather, governance operates at the velocity appropriate to the economy of which it is an expression: that of speed at the speed-limit, of instantaneity. This is seen especially clearly in that in the name of empowering the “will to enact,” governor-appointed officials on the level of the state replace the elected city council persons who are the supposed hallmark of representative governance and local governance in particular.

And, reducing their lengthy, necessarily mediated deliberations to the immediate, unimpeded decision of a single, unchallenged “decider”—a boss, in short—arrives amidst the rising influence of real-time culture and technology, an influence that intensifies especially when combined with the liquid economics of efficiency and austerity. The rhetoric of urgency need not even be articulated, since both are already culturally and technologically presupposed: as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt famously argued, representative democracy is insufficient to deal with the emergency situations since its essence is to “permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”

What the emerging liquid economy demands then, is a particular politicization of immediacy that relies upon the emergent habitus it inculcates in order to justify an increasingly authoritarian mode of both state and economy. But as the role of The Mackinac Center in the Flint Water Crisis clarifies, it cannot do so without developing a significant rhetorical defense of authoritarian modes of governance that nevertheless, do not fundamentally depart from already-existing assumptions amongst the well-inculcated US populace, particularly about the sacrosanct status of the free market—or more accurately, the liquid market. Where the free market claims to enhance the freedom of all given sufficient personal talent and effort, the liquid economy no longer guarantees anything, since “the people operating the levers of power on which the fate of the less volatile partners in the relationship depends can at any moment escape beyond reach.”

****

Free-market ideology is famously Austrian in character, and is centered around two central figures: Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. While Mises was the one who most explicitly flirted with fascism, the architects of Michigan’s liquid state and liquid economy are closer to Hayek, conceptually. And unsurprisingly, they are as deluded about what the “road to serfdom” amounts to culturally and technologically as they are politically and economically. Isaac M. Morehouse, Director of Student Leadership at The Mackinac Center, for instance, champions Hayek’s claim that economic planning is unsupportable, since no single individual can attain sufficient knowledge about all the unique contexts in which needs would be identified and resources allocated.

Celebrating Hayek’s influence upon Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Morehouse suggests that the success of self-edited Wikipedia pages demonstrate that the identification of needs and allocation of resources must be left up to separate, autonomous individuals to discover, bringing dispersed knowledge together in an efficient and expedient disposal of time that brings many actors into a convergent state within which they might isonomize the production process. Under cultural and technological conditions of immediacy, Morehouse opines, the entries would be continuously updated as new events occur, so that “the” encyclopedia would never be outdated but would always be updated with the latest information, unlike the quickly-outdated artifacts previously produced under print capitalism.

Much as with the liquid state and liquid economy then, liquid media are those in which publication is “increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive and fugitive,” including, obviously, categories previously catalogued with some solidity, by the print-based encyclopedias. As Morehouse explains, “most often the edition on your shelf has facts and figures that are already out of date and can never keep up with the rapidly changing world.” Insofar as Wikipedia entries are temporally superior in that they are altered in “real-time” just as Facebook pages and blogs trump periodicals because they are updated “instantly,” Morehouse claims they exemplify the Hayekian claim that “millions of individuals’ localized knowledge freely pooled together is greater than any central authority could compile alone.”

Never mind, of course, that the same Mackinac Center that published Morehouse’s article on the folly of allowing economic planning to be performed by “any single individual” also lobbied for the decidedly single individual that is the centerpiece of EFM policy over the course of the past decade—asking as far back as 2005, for instance, “Can Detroit’s Problems Be Corrected by an Emergency Financial Manager?”, with ample funding from the billionaire families behind Amway, Walmart and other major corporations. And yet, perhaps this disjuncture between democracy and dictatorship within the Mackinac Center’s output is itself evidence of the centrality of liquidity as a structural element of the contemporary period, one that becomes at least temporarily describable as “minimum state totalitarianism” in situations like the Flint Water Crisis.

The Mackinac Center’s deployment of the liquid dynamic then, is giving rise to new forms of power and authority in the state, economy, and media alike that support the definitions of liberty they employ, but with added twist. Despite appearances, the legitimation of Hayek via Wikipedia is not at odds with the more explicitly authoritarian discourse that confronts working-class and middle-class people in the realm of mortgages and student loans. Efficiency, expediency, and liquidity are all beyond dichotomies of democracy and dictatorship, since the emphasis is not on one or the other, but on the zone of indistinction between them, that which makes them all possible in a given, unpredictable situation. The rise of EFMs provides one of the clearest examples of the manner in which the immediacy of contemporary capitalism is not only about democratically empowering dispersed individuals to pool collective knowledge into digital entries, but is also on an ideological level, deeply antidemocratic in nature.

In other words, the new media environment is one in which, as David Weinberger’s book title insists, Everything Is Miscellaneous: digital culture is producing a “digital disorder” in which all that was previously defined according to the hierarchies of space are now recontextualized according to the immediacy of time, the fluidity of the modern. Weinberger asserts that ideological categories that came into being in the era of print capitalism are dissolving into a post-ideological, virtual space just as democracy and dictatorship dissolve into one another as well. As people use Wikipedia and other user-generated media to define political ideologies, political terms and political networks, each of the old categories becomes as subject to the vicissitudes of individual idiosyncrasy as does the liquidity it ensures between democracy and dictatorship.

This is especially the case since at the same moment that immediacy has enabled the spread of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, liquidified economic imperatives have enabled ideologies of efficiency and expediency to supplant Keynesian and print- and broadcast-bases for representative democracy. The ideological success of the once-marginal Austrian wing can certainly be attributed in part to what Paul Virilio calls the culture of reflex, in which rapid-fire dissemination is prioritized over the content of what is disseminated. Whereas in the past, parliamentary and extraparliamentary political movements alike relied upon predictable, periodic intervals separating publication and organization, today the Mackinac Center celebrates the immediacy of communication which blurs all rhythms and distinctions.

In doing so, it produces a generalized miscellaneity within which political categories are opened to relativization and resignification, while an anti-interpretive, anti-intellectual discourse reigns over what is then resignified. Given the simultaneous legitimation of an at least temporary dictatorship, it is also no surprise that references to liberty rarely mention their relationship, or lack thereof, to the more explicitly egalitarian domain of democracy. And while The Mackinac Center’s ongoing critiques of democracy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] reveal explicit hostility to equally enfranchised, shared decisionmaking, by avoiding such references in public discussion on the part of the representatives like Governor Snyder whom they support, an emergent liquid state is enabled to reinflect terms such as liberty that would otherwise be signified differently.

In this manner, policy agendas such as the installation of EFMs and the call for the deactivation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are understood as advancing rather than obstructing the image right-wing think tanks disseminate of “liberty.” And it is, of course, little distance from that point to further posit that representative democracy itself constrains liberty and should thus be abolished and replaced with some other state form preferred by dominant economic forces. As a result, in the name of liberty, the freedom of to engage in it is restricted, while a postdemocratic, immediatist movement is primed for expansion in the form of the liquid state.

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Palestine at the 2016 MLA

W. J. T. Mitchell

One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.

This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.

As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)

More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.

So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.

I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

 

Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/

The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.

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What do Dinosaurs want? Read W. J. T. Mitchell’s review of The Good Dinosaur at LARB!

Check out the review at LARB!

 

1eb3b-gertie_the_dinosaur

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Bond, Treasury Bond: 007 Is Out of Cash, but Your Government Can’t Be

By Scott Ferguson

spectre
In the most recent James Bond film, Spectre (2015), a cabal of digital surveillance capitalists-cum-global terrorists known as SPECTRE attempt to take over the British national intelligence service. This clandestine group builds a flashy high-tech skyscraper in the heart of London and, at one point, it is explained that only private investment would be able to afford this cutting-edge structure.

Digitally rendered exterior of Spectre’s privately backed British Intelligence headquarters

Digitally rendered exterior of Spectre’s privately backed British Intelligence headquarters

In reality, the scenes inside the fictitious data center were shot within London’s current  City Hall. Yet according to the film’s harrowing storyworld, the British government simply does not have the money to commission such an extravagant edifice.

Inside London’s City Hall

Inside London’s City Hall

Though mentioned only in passing, this comment about the insufficiency of public funds appears to structure the film’s entire plot, which pits what is essentially an embattled government program against the allegedly greater powers of  global information capital.

Deemed “Bond for the age of austerity,” Spectre’s cash-strapped hero still gets a pair of handsome cars, as well as a perfectly pressed ensemble for every climate and occasion. In the end, however, what Spectre shows is that, today, it is easier to believe a man can single-handedly take down an evil capitalist organization than it is to imagine a government being able afford dazzling new public infrastructures.

Christophe Waltz as Franz Oberhauser: criminal mastermind and head of SPECTRE

Christophe Waltz as Franz Oberhauser: criminal mastermind and head of SPECTRE

SPECTRE’s desert base exploding

SPECTRE’s desert base exploding

Meanwhile, the true specter haunting the latest installment of the Bond franchise is not global info capitalism, as the film’s narrative suggests, but rather what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reveals to be the limitless government treasury bonds that could be immediately deployed to enfranchise everyone. As MMT has it,

A sovereign government’s finances are nothing like those of households and firms. . . . [Such a] government does not need to ‘borrow’ its own currency in order to spend. Indeed, it cannot borrow currency that it has not already spent. . . . Government never needs to sell bonds before spending, and indeed cannot sell bonds unless it has first provided the currency and reserves that banks need to buy the bonds. . . . A sovereign government cannot become insolvent in its own currency; it can always make all payments as they come due.

MMT’s two-pronged revelation is that it is impossible for a currency-issuing government to run out of a unit that it alone supplies and that austerity is a cruel fiction that can be instantly reversed. More pointedly, there are no monetary reasons why we, as a public, cannot have nice things.

Thus in contrast to what The Washington Post alleges, the U.S. government can afford everything current presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is proposing: universal healthcare; free university education; infrastructure repair; first-rate public housing; environmental retrofitting; and low-cost postal banking.

bernie_sanders_2016

But with MMT, we can do Bernie one better. Just ask  Stephanie Kelton, a top MMT economist who also happens to be Sanders’s key economic advisor for his role as the ranking Democrat on the  Senate Budget Committee.

Stephanie Kelton: MMT economist and advisor to Senator Sanders

Stephanie Kelton: MMT economist and advisor to Senator Sanders

In addition to what Sanders is officially suggesting, we can also create a high-quality public child– and elder-care service; a robust public arts program; and a federally funded yet communally organized  public works system, which would guarantee everyone a job who wishes to have one.

Think of the latter as something akin to a permanent but more inclusive and locally sensitive version of the Works Progress Administration implemented under the Roosevelt presidency. This program would not only virtually eradicate problems of un- and underemployment. It would also establish just minimum standards for pay and benefits, put the means of production in the hands of workers, and ensure everyone’s right to meaningfully participate in shaping our world.

WPA poster created by WPA artists

WPA poster created by WPA artists

And such a world can be made ours without risking  inflationary price rises, says MMTers such as Kelton, so long as government funding remains directed at  real resources and productive capacities.

Digital explosion in Spectre’s Austria sequence

Digital explosion in Spectre’s Austria sequence

For all this, we require neither Bond-like physical prowess nor computer-simulated collisions. Instead, we’ll need an explosive combination that is at once more powerful and less substantial: political will and the capacity to electronically generate money out of thin air.

MMT shows that government spending works, not by draining physical money from public coffers but, rather, through “keystrokes” (i.e. pushing buttons on Treasury computers). Hands Typing on Computer Keyboard --- Image by © Lawrence Manning/Corbis

MMT shows that government spending works, not by draining physical money from public coffers but, rather, through “keystrokes” (i.e. pushing buttons on Treasury computers). Hands Typing on Computer Keyboard — Image by © Lawrence Manning/Corbis

Big budget digital spectacles such as Spectre will no doubt continue to thrill and delight global audiences. What we deserve, however, is a renewed and lustrous public life, which only government computers hold the power to make a reality.

(Originally posted on the blog The Unheard of Center: Critique After Modern Monetary Theory

Scott Ferguson is a professor of Film & New Media Studies at the University of South Florida. Historically, he has published mostly in academic journals: Screen, Arcade, Qui Parle, Liminalities, and he has another piece forthcoming in the academic journal Discourse. He also has pieces appearing in CounterPunch, Arcade, and now Naked Capitalism. His recent CounterPunch piece is being translated into Spanish for the Leftist publication Rebelión.

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

(Cross-posted from PULSE)

By Danny Postel

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Passing of Oliver Sacks

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

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

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Michael Taussig: The Mastery of Non-Mastery

Michael Taussig, a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry, has recently spent some very intensive time among the Kurdish resistance fighters in northern Syria. His report on this situation, published recently in The New School’s online Public Seminar, should be required reading for anyone who cares about this part of the world, the state of political Islam, the policies of the U.S. in the Middle East, and the lived experience of emancipatory and progressive movements worldwide. Taussig’s report is a masterwork of precise, detailed analytical description coupled with poetic exactitude and theoretical/political depth. You will find it at this link: http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/08/the-mastery-of-non-mastery/#.VdGaKHjFLcb
– W. J. T. Mitchell

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

https://theconversation.com/how-ferguson-and-blacklivesmatter-taught-us-not-to-look-away-45815

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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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What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

by Danny Postel

Resposted from: http://pulsemedia.org/2015/04/06/what-do-syrians-want-the-syrian-freedom-charter/

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo

Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared today — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the

​ ​

Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people. 

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

EthnicityReligionAge-Group

How would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria  some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS  the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition  how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document  but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

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REMEDIAL MATH (2): MORE ON THE 2015 ISRAELI ELECTIONS

An addendum to our last post from Daniel Bertrand Monk and Daniel Levine, reposted from: http://relationsinternational.com/remedial-math-2-more-on-the-israeli-elections/#more-778

Guest Post from: Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University and Daniel Levine, University of Alabama

Claims that Tuesday’s elections in Israel resulted in a striking victory for the right are as untrue as last week’s predictions that a narrow center/left ‘win’ was in the offing. It is true that Likud’s capture of 30 Knesset seats took most pollsters by surprise (the center-left Zionist Camp garnered only 24, about what the polls predicted). But despite claims to the contrary, no large-scale shift in voter preferences over the previous Knesset should be read into this. Likud’s gain was almost entirely at the expense of other parties within the right-wing nationalist bloc: the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties. While viewed as a whole, this bloc did pick up two additional seats, its ‘natural’ coalition partners – the clerical/orthodox parties – suffered a stunning loss offive Knesset seats relative to the last election cycle, owing to divisions among them and a newly-raised minimum vote threshold.

As a result, the Likud must now build a parliamentary majority with only 57 secure seats: three fewer than it held after the 2013 elections. For that, Netanyahu will have to seek partners from among his former rivals: the Zionist Camp, the Centrist Parties, or both. Among the Centrists, ex-Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon’s ‘Kulanu’ party could provide 10 seats.   But these would come at the expense of stability for the new government. Kahlon – against whom Netanyahu ran a nasty, ‘dirty tricks’ campaign – would effectively become kingmaker; and because all but one of Bibi’s other partners have more than 7 seats, his government would always be one defection away from collapse.  The alternative, a ‘unity government’ (ie, a ruling coalition of center-left and center-right parties) would give Bibi a wider base, but at the cost of a coherent political program. Such a government could well survive for its appointed four years – unity governments were a feature of Israeli politics in the 1980s – but at the cost of enforced inaction. Its coalition agreements would be structured so as to ensure that the government could never rule effectively: its only mandates would be concerning the formalities for declaring another election, or going to war. Meanwhile, everyone (hawks, settlers, doves, supporters of the clerical and Arab parties) would see it as illegitimate. This was the structural stalemate that we described last week. The eventual ‘winner’ of these elections was always going to be confronted with this same choice: between coalitional breadth and political legitimacy, between stability and inaction.

If it seems otherwise in many other post-election analyses, it is because many observers of Israeli politics fail, in our view, to distinguish between tactical shiftswithin electoral blocs and strategic shifts in the balance of power among them. The latter are extremely rare. Even ostensible sea changes in voter affiliations – like the 1992 elections, which brought a center-left coalition into power and ushered in the Oslo Accords – were the result of razor-thin majorities and the widespread invalidation of votes owing to parties that had failed to pass the minimum vote threshold.

Why do so many pundits and policymakers fail to make this distinction? Why, that is, do they continue to view Israeli elections as moments of actual political decision, rather than rituals in which voters make largely tactical shifts within stable – and orthogonal – voting blocs? What is it that drives what we can only consider to be a willed – albeit perhaps unconscious – mischaracterization of Israeli elections as events marked by potential shifts between Left, Right, and Center, when the experience of some two decades of voting suggests that while names of individuals and parties may change, the situation after each election is structurally indistinct from the one that prevailed the day before?

For US-based observers, that mischaracterization may reflect a broader unwillingness – or an inability – to see the image of a Middle East that is increasingly unlike the one that American hegemony had painted for it. In Israel, that mischaracterization may persist because many Israelis themselves still advance it. The fact that every election produces its own parade of ‘centrist’ candidates – senior army officers, public officials, leading media personalities – who believe themselves capable of rising above the old ideological divisions and producing a new national consensus, is proof of this. The ‘ash-heap’ of Israeli political history grows with each passing election: the Third Way and Center Parties, Shinui, Kadima, HaTnuah – and now, Yesh Atid and Kulanu. To date, all have suffered the same fate: they either disappear, or are re-absorbed into the electoral blocs they claimed to supersede.

The desire for a center party represents a legitimate political yearning: Israeli voters are trapped within an intolerable status quo. The details of that status quo are those we described last week. To maintain coalition governments, the Israeli state has effectively had to subsidize two ‘para-states’: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’. The former boasts an enormous, state-supported settlement project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians. The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more. The logic that holds this status quo together is that of a hostage crisis: to address the enormous costs of those ‘para-states’, one would need to confront the possibility of armed violence from Israel’s settlers, and the fact that the clerical parties have no sustained commitment to Israeli civil society.

The appeal of so-called ‘center parties’ is that they address the symptoms of this condition, while evading its structural causes. Their platforms unfailingly address the effects of skyrocketing economic inequality, the rising cost of housing, and the problems in the state health care and education systems, but rigorously ignore the steps needed to address them. As we’ve argued elsewhere, it is this same species of “actionism,” – talk of action, but ultimately for the sake of inaction – that animated Israel’s 2011 housing protests [http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/09/12/the-end-of-the-israeli-spring/]. In elections, then, Israelis debate the consequences of the political hostage crisis under which they live, even as they perpetuate it: the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and everyone understands that the state is expected to survive on what remains, if it wishes to avoid dissolution or civil war.

It’s not clear how long this evasion can persist. It is largely underwritten by American diplomatic and security backing: that support has made this ‘hostage crisis’ seem largely a domestic affair – to everyone save for those who must suffer its effects. Were that to waver – and the exigencies of Bibi’s campaign, from his congressional speech to his recent pronouncements on the death of the two state solution, have certainly revealed new fault lines, both within the Beltway and beyond it – it might yet force a reorganization of Israel’s domestic-political map.

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“Remedial Math: The Israeli Election of 2015,” by Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University and Daniel Levine, University of Alabama.

Reposted from http://relationsinternational.com/remedial-math-the-israeli-election-of-2015/

With one day remaining before Israel’s Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party appears poised to fall at least four seats short of its principal rival, the Zionist Camp (an amalgam of the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Herzog, and the remains of the Kadimah party led by Tzipi Livni), presently polling at about 25 seats.  Many pundits are now daring to suggest that a stable Left/Center coalition – unthinkable for well over a decade – may now be in the offing.   math20

The truth is quite different.  Unless a real upset occurs, the brute mathematics of Israeli politics suggest that it will be nearly impossible for anyone to build a stable coalition that can also govern the country. The President of Israel, Re’uven Rivlin, understands this well. Last week he summoned Netanyahu and Herzog to his residence in order to deliver a caution: when the election results are posted, instead of charging one of them to try to form a coalition, he may call on the two rivals to form a national unity government simply for the purpose of revising the electoral system. His well-founded fear is that the Israeli electoral system can’t produce stable coalition blocks and is lapsing into something resembling Italian-style paralysis.

Few American observers understand the extent of the Israeli political stalemate, even though it threatens to boomerang on US foreign policy in the region – again. Despite news flashes that Netanyahu’s political end may be near, he still faces a much shorter path to a forming a parliamentary majority.  That holds, even if the Likud party – now polling at about 21 seats – garners fewer votes than the Zionist Camp.  In tandem with its right wing allies (the 17-odd seats of the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties), Likud has a clear path to what Bibi calls a ‘natural’ coalition with the ultra-orthodox factions (another 17-odd seats).  Netanyahu can fatten those margins by extorting the participation of centrist parties whose leaders genuinely fear the social and economic costs of the same ‘natural’ coalition’s rule.  Coalitional stability will be achieved at the expense of governance.  This is not a new story.  Since the 1990s, the two logics – getting to a 61-seat majority in Israel’s Parliament on the one hand, and actually forming a coherent sensus communis out of an increasingly fragmented electorate on the other – have been growing ever more orthogonal.

Conversely, if present polling figures hold, Herzog’s and Livni’s Zionist Camp cannot make its way to a stable governing coalition very easily. To arrive at suitable numbers, the Zionist Camp would have to break an established taboo and form a coalition with what is expected to be the Knesset’s third-largest block, and its newest – the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties now polling at about 13 seats. The Zionist Camp would then have to persuade its other would-be coalition partners to do the same.  The pressure on those parties to defect would be enormous, and would only grow, if serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were to resume.  The Zionist Camp’s only other option is an assortment of Orthodox parties, which would have, somehow, to be persuaded to sit in tandem with the same centrist parties that are intent upon checking their power.

Whether from the left or the right, then, the essential crisis of Israeli parliamentary democracy remains the same: there is an irreducible gap between coalitional stability and political legitimacy.

This situation explains the current rise of Israel’s centrist parties, which together account for a block of approximately 20 Knesset seats.  Popular support for them has been fueled by the electorate’s prioritization of social and economic justice concerns in a country that now boasts the largest gap on the planet between rich and poor. As we’ve argued elsewhere, however, the turn to ‘social issues’ – housing, health, and education – is actually an evasion.  That is, it is a means to avoid a direct confrontation between average citizens and those extorting, through coalitional blackmail and the implicit threat of extra-judicial violence, the ongoing maintenance of two overlapping para-states: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’.  The former boasts an enormous, state-supported public housing project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians.  The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more.

The unspoken convention – and this is why talk of ‘social issues’ is actually an evasion – is to deny that these ‘para-states’ even exist, or that their constituents’ support of Israel is anything but conditional.

According to this ‘public secret,’ the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and the State is expected to survive on what remains.  If the public sector in ‘Israel proper’ is starved of funds, it is because of greedy plutocrats and inter-ethnic and secular-religious rivalries among Israeli Jews, rather than because of the enormous costs of occupation and settlement building.  While it should, theoretically, be possible to confront this convention, doing so cuts across the map of electoral politics as presently constituted. No matter how many times one plays the ‘fantasy coalition’ generators like the on Israel TV’s Channel 2, all Israeli elections result in a de facto preferential democracy.

The math is clear. There is no viable coalition that can govern Israel, except by renouncing governance in favor of an intolerable status quo and by periodic turns to military unilateralism.  Israel’s democracy cannot function except in dysfunction, as the centrifugal forces of income inequality, territorial para-politics, and sectarian kleptocracy continue to fragment the polity and the state even further.   The question is, for how long?

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Critical Inquiry in/on Cuba

Click the link to read W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Havana Diary: Cuba’s Blue Period” and Ricardo Alarcón’s “The Return of C. Wright Mills at the Dawn of a New Era.”

cuba0001

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At Last, We Understand Capitalism

Capitalism Explained

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I Voted

Bill Ayers

I voted.
Early.
No illusions that a billionaire’s ball is either a reflection of popular will or a mandate for what is to be done; no dreams that pulling a lever fulfills my ongoing responsibility as a socially engaged person or could possibly realize my most hopeful vision of a just and joyful world; no fantasies that the process is either clean or fair or honest.
But I voted.
Because it’s a fundamental right. Because people who are denied that right demand it and fight like hell for it all across the globe. Because I remember the courage of African-Americans on the courthouse steps in Mississippi and Alabama enduring hatred and humiliation, risking violence and death for access to the ballot. Because the right to vote is secured with blood. Because the right to vote is, then, sacred.
But four billion dollars? Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Finance, Big Military, Big Prison. That’s not democracy. That’s an oligarchy.
As Emma Goldman once said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Oh, and they did.
The Onion got it right: “Republicans poised to retain control of Senate.”
Gloria Ladson Billings commented: “Republicans are going to party like it’s 1865.”
Indeed.


See: billayers.org chatter

 

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Bureaucracy in Academic Research

Thomas Scheff

Why are we making so little progress in our understanding of the human world? Bureaucracy might be one of the reasons. As Max Weber (1947) pointed out, bureaucracies run on a system of rules in order to avoid arbitrary decisions. But Pascal (1660), an early scientist, pointed out that system itself can become arbitrary. The discovery of new knowledge, he wrote, requires both system and what he called finesse (intuition) more or less equally.

The attempt to plot the orbit of Venus by the astronomer Tycho Brahe illustrates the problem. Brahe’s approach was entirely systematic: his sightings of the planet were quite accurate. But he couldn’t chart the orbit, because he assumed, like everyone else at the time, that it was around the earth, rather than the sun. After Brahe’s death, his assistant, Johannes Kepler, broke the impasse unsystematically. In what might be called a “case study,” he constructed a physical model of the planetary system. In doing so, he accidently placed the sun in the center. When he saw the mistake, he knew how to make good use of Brahe’s data.

At the other extreme, the theory of relativity began with intuition rather than system: Einstein devised what he first thought was a joke about the effect of train travel on time. When he realized that it might not be just a joke, he needed a colleague to help him restate it in mathematical form, so that it could be tested empirically. The two examples taken together suggest that ending impasses in knowledge may require both system and intuition, no matter which comes first.

  1. O. Wilson’s 1998 book is organized around the idea of consilience, the integration of seemingly different points of view. Wilson proposed that the physical sciences have made huge advances but the social sciences and humanities have not. He argues that most physical science progress has been made when separate disciplines or sub-disciplines have combined: biophysics, physical chemistry, and so on. His plea for integration was made more than twenty years ago, but there has been little response from the disciplines.

Wilson has several pages of criticism of each of the major disciplines, including economics, psychology, and history. Here is some of his comment on my own discipline of origin, sociology. It concerns a quote from a leading sociologist of his time (Coleman 1990):

“The principal task of the social sciences is the explanation of social phenomena, not the behavior of single individuals.”

Wilson takes issue with this idea, still strongly held by most sociologists, by noting that biology would have remained stuck in its 1850 position if it had remained at the level of the whole organism, refusing to include cells and molecules.

Durkheim’s study of suicide gave birth to modern sociology, showing that there is a social component in causation, independent of individuals. This is an important first step, but it is not much help for understanding suicide, because the relationship is tiny (less than 10% of the variance). The more obvious meaning of Durkheim’s finding and its replications is that the social component is NOT the major cause, or even one of the most important causes. Perhaps in the beginning, pure sociology was a virtue, but treating it as the only way has become a vice.

In modern academic research, social/behavioral studies tend toward system, and the humanities, intuition, ignoring Pascal’s advice. The discipline of psychology, for example, has become Brahean, committed to systematic studies, even if they don’t work. One example: more than twenty thousand studies using self-esteem scales. These studies are systematic, but they don’t predict behavior and are therefore useless. The main problem seems to be the confounding of true and false pride [egotism] (Scheff and Fearon 2004).

At the other extreme, the humanities use finesse, rejecting system. For example, there is a large literature in experimental psychology showing that the venting of anger seldom works (Scheff 2007). These studies support the literary idea of catharsis, based on the concept of the distancing of emotion (Scheff 1997). That is, angry yelling tends to be underdistanced, merely reliving rather than resolving one’s backlog of anger.

Theatre and most other art, on the other hand, are built on emotion at aesthetic distance: one is both reliving unresolved anger and also being a spectator of the process. Wordsworth wrote about powerful emotions recollected in tranquility. Neither the psychologists nor the literary theorists seem to be aware of their mutual support.

Perhaps journals can help overcome this unfortunate division. Specialization is still useful, but it must not become an end in itself. Rather it should be balanced by integration between specialties. Social/behavioral studies and the humanities need to connect, and also the disciplines and sub-disciplines within and between them. There should be groups and journals in all disciplines trying interdisciplinary or other new approaches.

Journals, particularly, have fallen into the Brahe trap. They are mechanized to judge submissions in terms of discipline and/or sub-discipline, size, and adherence to scholarly/scientific rules. One approach would be to stop relying entirely on any particular system of rules: not just disciplinary rules (“No psychology please: we are sociologists”) but all rules. Even though a submission breaks rules, is it new or interesting enough to warrant consideration anyway?

Such a change might encourage researchers to explore new topics and approaches, rather than choosing the well-worn, safe and conventional ones. Perhaps this would be a step toward overcoming our impasse on understanding human beings.

References

Durkheim, Emile. 1901. Suicide. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (1951).

Pascal, Blaise. 1660. Pensees. (Thoughts). Paris: Editions du Cerf (1982).

Scheff, Thomas. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

______________2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology 1 (3), 98-113.

Scheff, Thomas and David S. Fearon Jr. 2004. Cognition and Emotion? The Dead End in Self-Esteem Research. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 34, 1, 73–90.

Weber, Max. 1947. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Knopf.

Thomas Scheff is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, past president of the Pacific Sociological Association, and past chair of the Emotions Section of the American Sociological Association.

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Allen Ginsberg’s Magical Evolving Visions

Stevan Weine

For nearly fifty years Allen Ginsberg told readers and listeners that his efforts to change writing and society we’re ignited by the mystical visions he had in 1948, at the age of 22, in which he heard the voice of William Blake reciting “Ah Sunflower.” At the time he journaled: I was staring out of the window when I saw a vast gleam of light cover the sky. The bowl of heaven was suffused with an eerie glow.

In a 1965 interview published in the Paris Review Ginsberg gave the most explicit description of the visions. This time he said: “…suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” Several other small published pieces briefly mentioned visions with a voice, but none before 1960. The Paris Review interview became the definitive version of the Blake visions.          

1948 to 1965 leaves a mysterious and unexplained gap of 17 years from the days of experiencing visions in Harlem to his elaborated confession that he heard Blake’s voice. A gap that surprisingly has not been acknowledged or explained despite the massive amount of writings by and on Allen Ginsberg. What are we to make of this 17-year gap from a writer who famously documented everything?

While trying to learn more about the visions, I found something shocking and secret in Ginsberg’s archives. I found a letter from Dr. Worthing of Pilgrim State Hospital concerning the 1948 lobotomy of his mother, Naomi. Naomi had a severe chronic psychotic illness since before Ginsberg was born. She suffered from hallucinations and paranoia and was in and out of state mental hospitals for most of her adult life, receiving electroconvulsive and insulin therapies. Dr. Worthing wrote to Ginsberg, because after his parents’ divorce, Allen was responsible for Naomi’s care. Though he was only 22 at the time, the letter asked him to give the doctors consent for his mother’s lobotomy. Ginsberg signed the consent document and the lobotomy was performed soon thereafter.

When I found this letter in his archives, it was summer 1986 and Allen Ginsberg’s consent for the lobotomy had not yet been publicly disclosed. When I showed this letter to Ginsberg he paused in silence, looked down, and said, “Hmmm. That’s a very extreme thing.”  

“What are you thinking?”

“I wonder to what extent there is a relation to my whole change of mind during that time, psychotic breakthrough so to speak. Because I had to do the signing for that.”

It was only six months after the lobotomy that Allen Ginsberg began to have visions. He was living by himself in an East Harlem apartment subleased from a friend in the divinity school. Ginsberg was single, gay but closeted, and apart from his friends. He hadn’t managed to fulfill his dream of himself as a writer. And he was trying to live with himself after authorizing a psychiatrist to cut into his mother’s brain presumably to save her life – a life that neither she nor he thought there was much chance of salvaging, given the horrible price that her chronic severe psychotic illness had already exacted.

His readings were a veritable syllabus in the literature of visions—William Butler Yeats, William Blake, St. John of the Cross, and other visionary literature that he found on the bookshelves in his Harlem sublet. But he wanted to be an artist, not a professor, and to descend from what he perceived as neurosis and too many abstractions. The visions offered that and more by turning him into a religious man.

Having visions allied him with Naomi and her misunderstood visions, but gave him a clear purpose. He was now a visionary poet whose calling was to write vision-inspired poems, salvaging her madness, and his own. He turned to literary classics on visions and tried to write his own allegories. Seventeen vision-poems from this time were later included in Gates of Wrath (1948-1949), published 25 years later.

But in addition to seeing the visions as an igniter of changes, I discovered how Ginsberg’s memory and representation of them from 1965 on came to differ from his original accounts. Thus the Blake visions were actually a consequence of changes made by Ginsberg well after 1948; changes in his approaches to madness, to writing, and to his role in society. Making those changes involved deep studying of visionary literature, composing scores of vision-poems, and unceasing correspondence with his supportive and challenging literary brethren.

It also involved his lock-up in the madhouse (the prestigious New York State Psychiatric Institute) and getting treatment, both inpatient and outpatient – another secret story that needs telling. Ginsberg knew from reading William James that psychiatry was likely to dismiss visions as hallucinations, and visionaries as being mentally ill. He felt that psychiatry did not help his mother, or for that matter, to try to understand her. Nonetheless, Ginsberg acknowledged that in those early years psychiatry helped him.

None of this fully explains the appearance of Blake’s voice after a 17-year gap. Nor how the changes in the visions came upon the heels of “Howl”(1957) and “Kaddish” (1962), side by side with his emergence as a poet-prophet. In his archives I found another letter bearing important evidence that could explain these changes. In June 1957, Ginsberg wrote a letter from Madrid to his brother Eugene. He spoke of his encounter that month with an extraordinary painting by Fra Angelica at the Muse del Prado: “the annunciation seemed the greatest painting I ever saw first hand – I’d vaguely remember it from life, or art books – but was not aware of its perfection – delicacy and solid bright centuries.” Ginsberg even crudely sketched the image for his brother to see.

The surprising meeting with Fra Angelico’s Annunciationi offered a model for revising the visions as an annunciation experience. From then on Blake’s voice was in the first place, like the doves and angels whispering into Mary’s ear, making it immediately obvious that Allen Ginsberg made a holy connection and was indeed Blake’s heir. This reimagined holy connection through visions, centered on Blake’s voice, was the central image that Ginsberg used to justify his role as a modern day poet-prophet. The dreadful links to Naomi’s lobotomy and Allen’s signature remained hidden behind myth.

This means that the Blake visions were not the singular transformative event that they have been made out to be for the public. Ginsberg’s tendency, and those of his chroniclers, to present the 1965 revised Blake visions as the original event, do not give full justice to the changes he made and the hard work necessary to achieve them. Nor to how his immersion in his mother’s madness and lobotomy somehow led to creating something powerful and sublime. Apparently the need for visualizing a dramatic event that encapsulated a completed foundation myth to justify Ginsberg’s role as a poet-prophet was greater than the messiness of a fifty-year evolving attachment.

Though Ginsberg may have sacrificed these truths of the visions, it was done for higher purposes. Beginning in 1948 and continuing throughout his life, Ginsberg used his experiences with visions to devise a radical new way of depicting madness not as a single unitary construct but in multiples: as a religious experience of ecstatic visions; as a psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia; as the experience of deviance of a mental patient, junky, or homosexual; as something that characterized the governmental and political forces that destroyed human souls, as manifested in the Cold War and later in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Ginsberg, madness not only has more than one meaning, but is precisely the point where reality and ecstasy meet, and thus is part of our humanity and should be embraced. By letting all the multiplicities of madness flourish in his art, Ginsberg could not only live with himself, but could give birth to poems that would powerfully challenge existing orders and remake the world.

Stevan Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare (1999) and Testimony after Catastrophe (2006).

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On Slavoj Zizek’s Plagiarism

It has come to our attention that an extended passage in Slavoj Zizek’s Critical Inquiry essay ”A Plea for a Return to Differance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)” 32 (Winter 2006) was taken from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. We deeply regret that this passage appeared in our pages without any citation of its source.

Given the source of the material in question, we emphasize that the passage was an expository summary of an anti-Semitic tract with which Slavoj Zizek himself profoundly disagrees.  Zizek adduced this tract as evidence for a “new barbarism” in critical discourse.  Critical Inquiry stands behind the point that the anti-Semitic screed is indeed barbaric, even as we regret Zizek’s failure to adhere to a baseline standard of academic discussion.

Zizek’s own statement:

A CLARIFICATION
With regard to the recent accusations about my plagiarism, here is what happened. When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book. (These passages are also taken over in Part III, Chapter 1, of my book The Parallax View.) As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of “stealing ideas.” I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.

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On Vergara versus California

Bill Ayers

 

 

Analogy Test:

High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:

a). memorizing a flight manual is to flying

b). watching Hawaii Five-O is to doing detective work

c). exchanging marriage vows is to a successful marriage

d). reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery

e). singing the national anthem is to good citizenship

f). all of the above

 

On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that current teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under California’s constitution.Vergara v. Californiawas cast as a group of poor kids suing the state to get rid of bad teachers under the banner of an advocacy group called Students Matter, a not-for-profit founded by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in order to bankroll his multimillion dollar lawsuit.

Vergara was immediately hailed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as an opportunity and “a mandate to fix these problems.” Give Arne Duncan credit for consistency: he called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it swept the slate clean and folks could just start over (never mind those black bodies piled in the corner), and in 2010 he applauded the school board in Central Falls, RI, the most densely populated and one of the poorest cities in the state, for firing every teacher, guidance counselor, and the principal at the high school because of poor performance. “This is hard work and these are tough decisions,” Duncan said at the time. “But students only have one chance for an education, and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”

Breitbart.com called the California decision a “conservative’s dream-come-true victory” over the unions, and cheered Welch and his supporters as “a long-time coalition of educational free-market supporters and privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.” Karen Lewis, fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, responded that the ruling had “the moguls drinking champagne.”

The link to Brown v. Board of Education was explicit in Judge Treu’s decision as well as in aneditorial in the liberal New York Times which acknowledged somewhat grudgingly that teachers deserve “reasonable due process rights,” but saluted the decision for opening “a new chapter in the equal education struggle.”

There’s trouble in every direction.

Because Judge Treu wrapped his judgment in it, let’s start with Brown, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools—it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inevitable upward trajectory. On October 26, 1992, the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous case, and the National Archives include several documents from the case in its digital classroom.

Brown occurred in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. And, importantly, Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant and embarrassing fact of American life that was being effectively wielded against the US in the escalating Cold War. White power needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.

Brown was, importantly, the result of relentless action and activism from below—whenever I read an account that begins with something like, “As a result of Brown, America experienced a wave of activism for justice…,” I want to offer an amendment: “As a result of a wave of activism for justice, America got Brown…”

In any case the promise of Brown was not simply about ending segregation in public schools; the promise, rather, rested on a profoundly democratic aspiration—that all individuals will receive equal education and opportunity, and that each will be afforded full dignity and equal respect. The most radical possibilities of Brown are that the country might recognize black people’s full humanity, their complete membership in the nation. Ralph Ellison wrote at the time that “the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won.” Another battle won, perhaps, but not the last.

Brown embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the specific harm suffered by black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—were the acknowledged concern; black pathology, however, not white privilege, became the focus of action. And the institutions of white supremacy live on: mass incarceration and massive school closings in black communities, home foreclosures which disproportionately erase black wealth and the gutting of voting rights for black people. On and on and on.

And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II, the implementation, or remedy phase, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial—the remedy fit neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave the local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.

“With all deliberate speed” turned out to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated black communities were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and reified even if the result was re-segregation. School segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more racially divided.

Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned from a museum into a mausoleum: Here is one more place where African-American aspirations and struggles for decent and equal education were laid to rest.

With minimal imagination and a bit of thought the struggle for “equal education” and Arne Duncan’s “collective obligation to take action” might extend to include the impact of concentrated poverty on children’s health and well-being and educational opportunities, or the consequences of skeletal budgets, overcrowding, and school closings, or the failure of Brown to remedy what it claimed it would fix.

And now comes Judge Treu using the lofty language of Brown to attack teachers, but without a word about the reality of districts continuing to herd black children into unnatural, chronically underfunded and inferior schools, build ever higher walls, and no mention of the policy interventions championed by Duncan and the corporate “reformers”—things like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, massive school closures and school “turnarounds,” the stripping of needed resources, and inadequate scripted and “teacher-proof” curricula—that have disrupted and hurt urban districts for years. As usual, white supremacy is hiding in plain sight.

Judge Treu’s decision is not an isolated event; it’s part of a pattern and an intentional strategy that begins by positing education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and schools as businesses run by CEOs with teachers taking the role of assembly line workers and students playing the part of the raw materials bumping helplessly along the factory floor as information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads. In this metaphoric strait-jacket it’s rather easy to suppose that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that once belonged to the public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, or corporations—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.” And this is what Judge Treu just bought and affirmed.

The magic sauce for this reform recipe has three ingredients: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (and then punish)—and destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained or unified voice. The operative controlling metaphor for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an item for individual consumption, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt or much space to breathe.

The forces fighting to create this new common-sense are led by a merry band of billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad—who work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, and promoting, always spreading around liberal amounts of cash to underline their fundamental points: dismantle public schools, crush the teachers unions, test and punish. When Rupert Murdoch was in trouble in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools for years (and whose own kids, of course, attended private schools), was on Murdoch’s payroll; according to the New York Times, the two saw eye to eye “on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.” The trifecta!

And, of course, these imaginary reformers create a fictional opposition—in a flattering portrait of Arne Duncan in the February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker the author claimed that in the contemporary school reform battles “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps.” The first he called “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” The reformers have the vitality and the energy, the big ideas and the grand plans, the troops and the momentum and all of the ready money; the traditionalists accept the schools just as they are, and they embrace the status quo as embodied in the colleges of education and especially in the big teachers unions.

This caricature leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, including those who argue, as John Dewey did a century ago, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons), and so did Mayor Daley’s, Mayor Emmanuel’s, and President and Mrs. Obama’s children, where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the farthest limits—oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. Good enough for the Obamas and the Duncans, good enough for us—and good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of Dewey, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”

Before teachers were organized, women were paid less than men, African-Americans were last hired and first fired, and teachers were routinely dismissed for their political opinions without any hope of due process. Fact: in those states where teachers are denied the right to organize, student achievement on the measures favored by the corporate group do much worse; fact: good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions are good learning conditions—good working conditions can only be developed if teachers are collectively in the conversation.

The moguls may be drinking champagne, Breitbart and company may be having a late-night orgy, and Judge Treu may imagine himself a freedom fighter, but none of this is the last word.

 

 

 

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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.  http://www.sensusnovus.ru/opinion/2013/12/28/17688.html

Anya Bernstein

Anthropology, Harvard University

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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.

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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

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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

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Bernadine Dohrn on the Anti-War Movement

http://inthesetimes.com/article/15592/how_the_anti_war_movement_won_the_hearts_and_minds_of_the_public/

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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

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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:

http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/the_death_of_gun_control_an_american_tragedy

            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.”)

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July 16, 2013 · 11:14 am