Israel/Palestine: from the Ground Up

July 17, 2009

Israel/Palestine from the Ground Up: Settlements and Housing Demolitions & The Question of Land

How can we discern the truth about the Israel/Palestine conflict? Both sides claim justice is on their side. Civilians have been killed on both sides. The Israelis claim that Arabs want to take their land. The Palestinians claim that the Israelis have already taken their land.  In Obama’s Cairo speech, he focused on the question of settlement expansion in the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Days war in 1967.  I want to connect the settlement issue with the issue of demolition of Palestinian homes and link these to the overall land question at the center of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Let’s examine the history and try to trace the overall trajectory of land control. In 1947, the United Nations partitioned what had been the British mandate over Palestine allotting 56% for a Jewish state and 43% for a Palestinian state (despite the fact that 1,269,000 Arabs and 608,000 Jews—most of whom arrived during the British mandate — resided within the borders of Mandate Palestine) with the city of Jerusalem declared an international zone. Zionists publicly accepted this plan, while Palestinians rejected it and war ensued. After the armistice of 1949, Israel claimed 77% of the partitioned land, Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and what came to be known as the West Bank, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian state envisioned by the UN partition plan did not come into existence. Over 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.

Tension persisted until June, 1967 when Israel launched a preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria. By the end of the Six-Day war, Israel had captured the West Bank (including East Jerusalem which it soon annexed) from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from the Egyptians. These came to be called the occupied territories and are what is at stake in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel remains in control of these areas. In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip: removing Israeli settlers, but remained in control of border areas, transport, trade and aid; in effect putting its 1 ½ million residents under siege, only interrupted by the massive Israeli invasion at the end of 2008.

Since 1967, Israel has engaged in a policy of changing the ‘facts on the ground’ to its advantage by building settlements in the occupied territories and demolishing Palestinian homes. Since 1967, over 100 settlements have been built populated by close to ½ million Israeli settlers. These settlements have grown continuously since 1967 regardless of who was in charge of the Israeli government – in the last 2 decades, at a rate 3 times the rate of the rest of Israeli society. Even the touted 1993 Oslo agreements did not slow this process down.

Over 20,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967. In 2005, even the Israeli government gave up the fiction that this policy had to do with ‘security’ concerns; the Israeli army officially abandoned the policy of such “collective punishment”. These demolitions are now carried out by the Israeli civil administration. Palestinian basic rights to shelter are limited, first, by the denial of housing permits, and ultimately by bulldozing Palestinian homes, often charging residents for the cost of destruction. RachelCorrie was trying to prevent a house demolition when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

According to most international law experts, these Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories are in violation of core tenets of international law, including:

Article 46 of the Hague Convention, Article 49, paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Security Council Resolution 465 (1980-unanimously adopted), the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, among others.

The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD has taken up the issue of the destruction of Palestinian homes – by defending them and rebuilding them — for humanitarian concerns, but also because this Israeli policy so graphically illustrates that the consistent Israeli goal is to displace Palestinians and expand Israeli territory and is therefore an obstacle to a just and lasting resolution of the conflict

The loss of a home is a traumatic and devastating blow, robbing families of their dignity, their dreams, and their individual and collective futures. As one Palestinian father who lost his family home stated simply, “The demolition of a house means the demolition of a family.”

Two stories — out of hundreds — help to put a human face on the brutal Israeli policy of home demolitions:

(1) Mr. Salman has been living in a cave with his family for eight years. The cavernous and dank hole in a hillside was their only home after the Israeli government demolished their 1260 square-foot house in 1999. The military operation was conducted after the family had spent only one night in the house.

The only reason given for the demolition was that they were too close to the Hagai settlement and adjacent military post. The Salman family has owned the land just south of Hebron for hundreds of years, long before any Israeli settlers arrived and began pushing people off their land. Mr. Salman divides his time between working as a laborer, attending to his small flock of sheep and growing flowers and vegetables. The new home is almost complete but Mr. Salman is keeping the cave ready in case the Israeli government comes again with their bulldozers.

(2) Mr. Rahman’s father built their East Jerusalem house in 1956 just a few hundred meters on the Jordanian side of the ceasefire line dividing Jerusalem. In 1967, his father was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. He and his five brothers own the 1⁄2 dunum of land (1/8 acre) on which they each have a home.

In 1998, the Israeli municipality demolished the father’s home. The father spent $20,000 on attorneys and court costs to avoid the demolition, to no avail. The Israeli government not only demolished the house, but then charged the family 20,000 shekels (almost $4900) to clean up the rubble. The stress led to Mr. Rahman’s separation from his wife and children for 1 1⁄2 years.

Mr. Rahman explains why he would not sell to the Israeli government, who in this unusual case actually offered money for the house: “There are many reasons. From a religious point of view, it is forbidden for me [a Muslim] to sell to an occupier. From a political point of view, if I take money from the Israeli government, then Palestinians will see me as a collaborator. But the real reason is that I belong to this land. It is my place, my home. I went to the U.S. and was happy there, but I wanted to come back, to my home. I simply can’t take the money.” …“Where we live cannot be compared [to other places] – the beauty, the weather, how close it is to the city center, the quiet.”

The history is consistent; the story line depressingly familiar. Over time, Israel has seized more and more land and Palestinian land has diminished. There is no future in this policy, neither for legitimate Israeli security concerns nor for a just solution for the Palestinian people. We need to look beyond the charges and counter-charges to perceive and understand the core issues of this conflict. If Palestinians do not possess real authority over their futures; if the continuing erosion of their rights to land and decent housing continues, there will be no peace in the Middle East.


The Vitality of Anti-Imperialist Analysis

July 11, 2009

The Vitality of Anti-Imperialism as a World View: Rescuing Anti-Imperialism from some Anti-Imperialists

Anti-imperialism as an ideology has been abused in recent years. It has been employed to defend Saddam Hussein on the grounds that any enemy of the US Empire should be defended.  It has been an excuse for incompetent, authoritarian leaders around the world to deflect responsibility from their own ineptitude, corruption, and power hunger.  If there is a problem, the imperialists are solely to blame.  Currently it is employed to discredit popular opposition to Ahmenijedad in Iran as serving the interests of the US and Israel.  The logic (pointed out in my earlier post: “Anti-Imperialism & Obama’s War in Afghanistan”) seems to run as follows: the US is the strongest imperial power in the world, therefore its opponents are worthy of support as putative anti-imperialists.  Their own limitations are secondary and should be discounted since Empire defines the world.  There is also a hint of conspiracy theory.  If there is popular opposition to these leaders, it is ergo a CIA creation and/or manipulation.

While anti-imperialism, like any ideology, can be misused to blind one to reality, recent events point to its explanatory power.  Let me start with the reaction to the death of Robert McNamara, architect (as headlines put it) “architect” of the American war in Viet Nam.  Media pundits, when not celebratory, have agonized over whether his late life remorse about the war is worthy of respect.  Historian Marilyn Young accurately expressed skepticism about the depth of his turn-about by looking closely at his stated regret.  He is famously quoted as admitting:

“We were wrong, terribly wrong.’ But if you read the full paragraph, what it is says is, “We weren’t wrong in our values and our intentions; we were wrong about our judgments and capabilities.” And the book as a whole is an excuse. It’s a struggle–he almost comes to terms and then he runs away from coming to terms. And he does the same thing, I think, in “Fog of War.” And he did that same thing for the whole of the rest of his life–an approach to what he had really been responsible for, and then a bouncing off it, too awful to face.

And it happens over and over again. He says, for example, he lists all the terrible mistakes that he made–that they made. He never says “I.” He says “they.” And he says, “We just didn’t understand that Vietnam was about nationalism.” He doesn’t ask why they didn’t understand that.

…But also, he was surrounded … by Lippman, by Morgenthau, by I. F. Stone, who were vigorously writing about the Vietnam War. By George Kahin, a great historian of Southeast Asia. So, if he wanted to know what the upsurge, the insurgency in South Vietnam was about, he had lots of sources. He never comes close to explaining why he didn’t pay attention to any of that. Instead he says, “Oh, my god, we just didn’t know they were nationalists.” How come?

Similarly in a heated 1995 exchange with his erstwhile opponent, Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, he backed away from a full understanding/admission of the motives for the American war:

Giap: “So we were forced to fight you—to fight a ‘People’s War,’ to reclaim our country from your neo-imperialist ally in Saigon … and to reunify our country.”

McNamara: “Were we – was I, was Kennedy, was Johnson – ‘neo-imperialist’ in the sense you are using the word?  I would say absolutely not!  Now if we can agree on an agenda focused on episodes like Tonkin Gulf, where we may have misunderstood each other, then…”

… Giap: “Lessons are important, I agree.  However, you are wrong to call the war a ‘tragedy’ to say that it came from missed opportunities.  Maybe it was a tragedy for you, because yours was a war of aggression, in the neo-colonialist ‘style’ or fashion of the day for the Americans.  You wanted to replace the French; you failed; men died; so yes, it was tragic, because they died for a bad cause.”

No matter, American intentions are always good, but sometimes tragically mis-communicated.  Which – miscommunication or imperial aspiration –better explains the rejection of Ho Chi Minh’s appeals for American support after World War II, the unstinting support and bankrolling of the French so they could regain Viet Nam as a colony, the rush to replace the French after 1954, the creation of a puppet state in the South, the denial of the legitimacy of Vietnamese nationalism, the waging of a cruel war, and the isolation of postwar Viet Nam?  If not miscommunication, then perhaps an indiscriminate anti-Communism, blinding American leaders to Vietnamese nationalist aspirations?  How is that explanation reconciled with Nixon’s rapprochement with the Chinese Communists – then contesting the Soviet Union for world Communist leadership?

The war against Viet Nam came out of a consistent history and strategy of America trying to gain a foothold on the Asian mainland – going back to the Open Door Policy and the replacement of the Spanish as the power in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century.  The war in Viet Nam was not the result of on a ‘failure to communicate’ (in the iconic, ironic words from Cool Hand Luke), not good intentions gone bad, but an episode in the struggle of colonized peoples to rid themselves of imperial power.  As Howard Zinn has pointed out, McNamara’s life demonstrates that it is almost always corrupting to enter the “House of Empire”, even if one’s conscience squirms after the fact.

Which brings us to Obama’s important (especially in its focus on Israeli settlements on the West Bank, a subject for another post), and also limited, speech in Cairo in early June.  In arguing for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he elaborated his variant of McNamara’s ‘both sides miss interpreted the other’ approach:

Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.  The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.  We were born out of revolution against an empire.

…Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.

And in an unprecedented admission by an American leader:

In the middle of the Cold war, the United Sates played a role [italics mine] in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.

The overthrow – in which the US played a major role — of a moderate, non-Communist government which had nationalized the oil industry, was not an act of empire, but of Cold War meddling.  What of the US’s uncritical support of the Shah, of Israel, of the ‘war of choice’ in Iraq, the presence of hundreds of US bases in over a hundred countries, the humungous new embassy in Baghdad?  Of course, the anti-terrorism has replaced anti-Communism as the new rationale for unbridled US intervention, and undoubtedly the source of more miscommunication.

Instead of the social psychology of communication, an anti-imperialist focus brings to light the reach of American military power and the depth of American and multinational economic penetration; it places energy issues on the table rather than as an embarrassing after-thought.    It allows us to perceive continuities and patterns in US policy, rather than exceptions, misunderstandings, and miscommunications.  It emphasizes the reality of power and power struggles.

An anti-imperialist analysis does not free us of the necessity for the ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions.’    Ideologies provide a framework for thinking, not a substitute for thinking.  Neither Iraq nor El Salvador is the same as Viet Nam.  In fact, an anti-imperialist understanding starts from the particular perspective of the imperialized not from that of the imperialist.

As I’ve already noted, all opposition to American power is not necessarily progressive; just as Hitler posed a reactionary alternative to the US and Britain.  And as suggested above, we will miss the spirit of freedom and democracy if we dismiss the opposition to Ahmenijedad — as he does — as a creation of Western imperialists.  There are other bad forces in the world besides US imperialism.  But the strange perspective derived from living inside an embattled empire should not blind us to its machinations – even when led by leaders of conscience and more appealing intentions than Robert Strange McNamara.

Neo-Liberalism (or Market Madness) and Education: Part II

July 2, 2009

Neo Liberalism & Education (or Market Madness): Part II

The essence of neo-liberalism is the emptying out of the public sector, of notions of communal space, and the reduction of human relations to a number to represent its market value. As Carlos Ovando tells us, neo-liberalism tries to “substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens.” For education, besides what’s already been described, this means the constriction of teacher/student relationships, the narrowing of curriculum especially in No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-sanctioned schools, the reduction of knowledge to basic skills, the standardization and decontextualization of schooling, along with the deskilling of teaching – scripting and a one metric evaluation system (test scores). How can we skill up students as we skill down teachers? All of this accompanied by a concerted demonization of teacher unions.

As for equity, we seem to be moving toward a 2-tiered system with low SES schools dominated by test prep, and zero-tolerance discipline, while more affluent schools are generally able to escape the discipline of high stakes testing. Negative labels, loss of Title 1 funding, threatened and actual school closure punish schools most in need. The achievement gap remains persistent, especially among high achievers. And the rate of graduation of urban students of color remains unconscionably low.

I don’t think it is out of place, right now, to question where the “symbolic analysts and manipulators” – the supposed vanguard competitors of 21st century workers –have taken us. In a moment where the economic situation is much more dire than the recession that A Nation at Risk bemoaned, the computer simulators, the concocters of impossibly complicated financial instruments, the path breaking leveragers of imaginary value surely have some responsibility for our current economic dilemmas. Their success in short-term profit taking should be a sobering example of Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Of course, this applies equally to high-stakes testing. We would have been better served by less hype, a media less subservient to power, and a citizenry with a stronger sense of its own needs with less faith in these high-powered symbol manipulators.

The imperial dreams and neoliberal fantasies of the Bush Administration, to borrow the apocalyptic tone of A Nation at Risk, purged of its crude nationalism, have now put A People at Risk. The economy is in the tank and social programs on the cutting board. We cannot effectively fight the cutbacks without a different vision of the future for education. A Nation at Risk was not wrong to focus attention on our schools; just off the mark in its simple-minded economics and barren social vision.

So what is our alternative vision? To solve problems of inequity, to prepare our young people for the trials and tribulations of our difficult world, to enrich the lives of young people, to challenge the expertise of the powerful, how might we move in a different direction? I wish I had more definitive advice, but let me try and add to the conversation. We need to start with those with the greatest stake in our educational system, rather than from some flawed metaphor of the global economy. We can build on a generation of scholarship and practice in turning away from deficit thinking – in which students need to be fixed rather than nurtured — and make use of the knowledge and aspirations of students, teachers and community members to enrich our learning communities. We need to recruit and support community members to be part of our schools, including as teachers. We need to make college and university educational affordable so that its graduates are not in perpetual debt.

Good teaching is labor intensive, requiring high-level organizational, psychological, cultural and pedagogical skills, not to mention subject matter competency. Teacher training must move toward training teachers with socio-political consciousness and cultural competency; whose belief in student capacity is rooted in a real sense of students’ lives. The new technologies can and will be useful tools, but are no substitute for caring, thoughtful, resourceful, and knowledgeable teachers.

Schools need to be reconceived as part of local communities, responsive to community needs and tuned into community context, functioning as a key part of larger support system. We know that schools which embody “relational trust” based on reliable and honest working relationships between administrators, students, teachers, and community members are more successful. Evaluation of schools need to go beyond test scores and even graduation rates, to the quality of school libraries, the development of active citizens, the promotion of physical and emotional health and evidence of close relations to the local community. Ideas such as Richard Rothstein’s for a school inspectorate – with experienced people spending structured time in our schools and community institutions to evaluate schools on a broad basis — can be the beginning of a conversation for an alternative to the NCLB metric for systematic evaluation of schools. As Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

Our educational goals must include an expansive definition of citizenship. Good citizenship is more than casting a ballot or an episode of community service. Education should help teach students to hold our leaders to account; amplify student voices so they can become leaders. True literacy empowers students to ‘read the world’, connect to others, and engage in authentic and creative self-expression. Computer and media literacy necessarily include the temerity and capacity to interrogate the claims of pundits and bloggers. These are not particularly new ideas, but ideas that have been downgraded, and disparaged when not ignored, in the neoliberal induced panic about global competition. They need to be revivified, adapted, transformed so that our young people can flourish in a complicated world that while scary enough is less threatening than the dog-eat-dog/nation-eat-nation world conjured up by the neoliberals.

Finally, as education activists, we also need to be part of the fight for affordable and adequate health insurance, affordable housing, the right to form a union, for more socially conscious unions, for green space in our communities, and a fairer tax structure; for equity in all areas which affect our students’ ability to learn and effectively engage the world.

We stand at a critical moment for the future of American education. There is an opening for a different direction for American education that we cannot afford to miss. Neoliberal economic and political policies have put our people at great risk and people have a strong sense of being misled by the big money players. We need to come together to reframe our understanding of education. How can we as education activists and organizers move away from this failed ideology toward a richer, fuller sense and practice of education?

A final thought: perhaps we should banish the term “neo-liberalism” in favor of one more understandable and less confusing: perhaps “market fundamentalism” or “market mysticism” or just “market madness”.

Neoliberalism and Education: Part I

June 23, 2009

Neo Liberalism & Education: Part I

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a commission initiated by the Reagan administration, issued its apocalyptic report, A Nation at Risk, in which it warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in American public schools. Driven by fear of the rise of the Japanese, German, and Korean economies, it placed the blame for America’s seeming economic decline on the American educational system. Works by Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, the National Center on Education and the Economy, by Bill Gates, and of course, Flat Earther Thomas Friedman elaborated on these alarmist themes. Even Alan Greenspan chimed in “We have not been able to keep up the average skill level of our work force to match the required increases of increasing technology” as he not so smoothly put it. Robert Reich, for instance, emphasized the importance of “symbolic analysts or symbol manipulators” – workers who could use computers and other new media to be economically productive.  All of these pundits and experts agreed that the education system needed to be fundamentally transformed to produce workers who could capably compete in the 21st century global ‘knowledge” economy.  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan recently put it, “We have to educate ourselves to a better economy”, thereby implicitly blaming education for the current economic crisis.We’ll return to these symbolic analysts in a few minutes. For much of my discussion I rely on Richard Rothstein’s article, “”A Nation at Risk’ Twenty-Five Years Later”.
Proponents of the late 20th century’s global economy touted it as a qualitatively new moment in history, in some circles as the end of history and the transcendence of outmoded ideologies, not just socialism, but Keynesianism, welfare state-ism, etc. For these neoliberals, the market could solve problems which had overwhelmed the political system. Market efficiency could cut bureaucracy and focus on real productivity. Political forces would be kept from interfering with and distorting the natural workings of the market. The answer to the most basic question: Does the economy exist to serve society or do we exist to serve the economy was answered decisively in favor of the latter? People needed to mold themselves to cope with the inevitable demands of the increasingly demanding market.
For most of the non-industrialized world, this meant accepting IMF and World Bank terms of structural adjustment which meant less government support for education and moves toward privatization of schools. In the US public education has gained a strong foothold and attempts at voucher systems to support private alternatives, despite a few victories, have not gained much traction. Neoliberal market mystics, in the face of this attachment to the public-ness of public schools, decided on a strategy to remake public schools in the image of private enterprise. They understood that they could ride the post A Nation at Risk panic and link up with others genuinely concerned about the reality of inequitable public schools – particularly those in urban and rural areas. Ordinarily, neoliberals studiously avoid issues of equity, vigorously arguing that government efforts to promote equity or provide social supports undermine the market and inevitably backfire, functioning as ineffective handouts which promote dependence and sap initiative. The market would lead to increased productivity and a rising ship would lift all.
In the case of education reform in the US, however, neoliberals were satisfied for the time being to promote “standards” and accountability so schools could be compared (similarly to how businesses profits are used to rate the value of stocks) and made competitive. Along with the age of accountability came a concomitant privatization of school resources, such as testing and auxiliary services (maintenance, food provision, etc.). Neoliberals attempted to appropriate discourses of equity to an agenda of privatization by contending that the testing/standards regime (and both the threat and reality of voucher-based privatization) would not only improve school efficiency, but also promote greater equity, and close “the achievement gap”. Test scores, the currency of accountability, were to be disaggregated by race and other characteristics, so that the shortcomings of schools for diverse populations could be highlighted, and presumably, addressed.

For neoliberals, inequity was a problem whose solution rested solely with schools. If a school in one economically poor area could raise test scores, that success demonstrated that larger socioeconomic inequalities were unimportant and political and social policies need not address them – so there was no cause to interfere with the market’s distribution of wealth and opportunity. Providing a larger social support network would get in the way of market efficiency. Those who raised broader social concerns were castigated for not believing that “all children can learn” and “making excuses” for poor teaching. If inequality was a problem, it was because of school failure, not economic or political failure. Schools would provide students with skills to effectively compete in the global market, or not. Schools were singled out to carry the burden of dealing with social inequality, relieving the rest of society of any responsibility.

What would allow schools to rise to the challenge? High expectations. Parental support, efficient management, disciplined by high stakes testing embodied in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And charter schools would be promoted, sometimes consciously as a Trojan horse for privatization, more often as way to overcome bureaucracy and prod public schools to adopt new, innovative methods.

The Italian activist, Gigi Roggero implores us to “have no nostalgia for the past, nor any nostalgia for the future.” It is pointless to lament the so-called “good old days” before the advent of No Child Left Behind or lose oneself in fantasy about a far distant future. We can permit ourselves to credit the standards movement with some success before we critique its overall motivation and direction. No doubt, disaggregating test scores has focused attention on groups not previously selected for success. There is heightened attention on low achieving students. It is harder now for teachers to cut an implicit deal with students hanging out in the back of the room along the lines of “If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you.” The mantra that “all children can learn” is worth keeping, as long as it isn’t used to blind us to larger social realities. At least until the current economic crisis, NCLB has allowed greater access to resources previously beyond the reach of struggling students. NCLB also allows parents to demand a qualified teacher in every classroom. Some of the more recalcitrant and unresponsive bureaucrats have been dislodged. The impersonality of the large institutional schools has been effectively challenged. And some charter experiments have pioneered innovative curricula, community building, and student self-development. Critics of neoliberal school reform should build on these strengths while seeking a new direction.

Some of the problems of neoliberal school reform will be clarified in this moment of economic crisis. Despite Obama’s stimulus package, hard times are coming for public schools, with cutbacks, layoffs while the economic life of poorer students becomes even more difficult. But the problems of neoliberal reform run deeper than a lack of resources to carry it out as advertised. And it is not just the setting of unattainable goals – such as NCLB’s professed goal of 100% proficiency by 2014, a veritable Lake Wobegone with children all of whom are above average – which no public school can achieve, thus paving the way for the alternative of privatization.
To dig deeper, let us return to the anxiety produced by A Nation at Risk to grasp the deeper flaws of neoliberal reform in the light of our experience. The standards movement stakes its claims on producing world class workers who can master the new technology and outcompete ‘all them foreigners’ First of all, it is not obviously the case that new technology requires more highly skilled labor. History suggests that technology often leads to deskilling of labor as in the decline of the craft industries with the introduction of mass production and the division of labor. Today retail clerks neither need to master arithmetic nor know the prices of merchandise, as they avoid carpal tunnel syndrome from positioning the product code so prices can be recorded. Furthermore, job projections by the Bureau of Labor Standards do not show sharply increased demand for college graduates in the near future. Ask any college graduate to assess their current job prospects.
Since the mid-1990s – before the onset of NCLB and the triumph of standards-based reforms – US workforce productivity expanded faster than counterparts in other industrialized countries. The Japanese economy was mired in a long period of stagnation. But neither American schools nor Japanese schools had been transformed in any ways that could reasonably account for this acceleration of productivity in the US or its decline in Japan. I know of no study that links educational change and changes in productivity in this simple-minded way – though of course, in general, the expansion of educational opportunities is surely an important economic asset of any society.
Jobs, manufacturing jobs, but also some high tech jobs, were being sent overseas, not because of lack of worker skill, but because of the lower price of labor – to Mexico, China, Indonesia, India, Viet Nam. In fact, the point of globalization for neoliberals is to enable capital to find the cheapest available labor. If one wants to understand the distribution of jobs on a global scale, checking out the comparative price of labor is surely more explanatory than the relative strength of education systems. Citing one neoliberal complaint that “Indian engineers make $7.500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications” Rothstein tartly concludes that “this is silly: No matter how good our schools, American engineers won’t be six times as smart as those in the rest of the world.” Construction and personal services jobs will be protected, but more portable jobs, such as computer programming, radiology, probably not.
Tax policy, the assault on worker organization and unionization, not to mention the honesty, reliability, and accountability of capital and credit markets have a lot more to do with the availability of good jobs and the distribution of wealth and are therefore more important in determining potential earning power than the educational system. Our attention has been diverted from who has the power to seize the fruits of people’s productivity to a misconceived notion that American economic success relies on turning schools into businesses.

Part II coming soon

Black Power Redux

June 6, 2009

Black Power Redux

Sorry for the long break between blogs.

Last week I went to a conference called “I Want to Be Your Friend, You Black Idiot!!: the Dynamics of Majority Involvement in Minority Movements”.  The highlight was a look back at the issue of Black Power by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) veterans.  It was honest and respectful without necessarily resolving all the issues on the table.

The Atlanta Project (AP) has long been held responsible/blamed for the consolidation of Black Power ideology inside SNCC and the subsequent expulsion of its white members.  One of the speakers (Z) was part of the Atlanta Project; the other one of the whites (B) expelled.

Z began with a history of her own trajectory toward Black Power ideology which was triggered after 18 months in Mississippi during and after Freedom Summer, where she stumbled across a recording of Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots.  After leaving Mississippi, she then did fundraising for SNCC in the North where she dealt with white donors who held strong opinions about SNCC’s political direction.  Her subsequent work in Atlanta brought her in touch with the nationalist thinking of Bill Ware as well as to an impoverished urban community.  Matters polarized between the Atlanta Project and national leadership.  Bill Ware brought a higher awareness of African nationalism and the analysis of African-Americans as an internalized colony.  The AP started the Nitty Gritty community newspaper; held dance parties barbecues, etc – goal was to develop an urban mode of organizing, a big city version of Stokely Carmichael’s (later Kwame Touré) earlier successful Lowndes County model, as well as oppose the war against Viet Nam (for instance, mass leafleting in 5 Points among women bussed to the suburbs and support of draft resistance).

The AP was responding to the fear that white liberals from the North were taking over and to manifestations of white privilege in organizing work, but also to problems of internalized racism in the Black community, including passivity and demoralization.  It argued for a strategy which placed less emphasis on inter-racial alliances and the Democratic Party and more on independent Black political organization.  Black Power had previously been forcefully articulated by Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell; so why the negative reaction; what was the big deal?  Why did NAACP leader stoop to compare Black Power to Hitler and the KKK?  Others in the audience saw this period as the time when SNCC moved beyond Black power to a larger notion of revolutionary transformation

Z. was somewhat self-critical about the tactics and divisiveness of the AP, stating that lines were drawn in the sand that did not need to be and matters had become unnecessarily polarized.

The position paper was rejected in March, 1966, but it forced a reassessment of SNCC’s politics.  In December, 1966 whites were expelled from SNCC in a close, but what seemed inevitable, vote.  The AP was expelled in early 1967 for insubordination.

Z. claimed that Black Power broke through the fear of whites, brought pride, reinvigorated Black theology, led to Black political success (election of Black mayors, etc.) and many Black formations; that the assertion of Black Power marked the beginning of the move from civil rights to Black liberation.  The response of urban youth to the slogan was unprecedented; its long-term impact on demeanor, style, dress, the arts, and culture, undeniable.

Later on B. commented in response that there was no possibility that SNCC could be taken over by whites; they were a minority in the organization and (with the possible exception of some short-timers) understood very well that Blacks were the leaders.  He also realized that it was time for him to move on, or ‘graduate’ to other work.  He was more concerned that SNCC did not embrace his efforts to start a working class project in the South.

It might be argued that his response missed the point of the AP’s critique; that psychologically and politically it was time for SNCC to build its identity solely with Black people and move away from dealing with whites, however dedicated and respected.  On the other hand, he was articulating his own sense of SNCC and suggesting a less divisive path forward that was consistent with and supportive of Black self-determination.

This felt like a historic moment, not exactly of reconciliation, but of transcendence, reminding me that getting older has its upside.  It’s not that the issues were resolved (they weren’t), but that the human quality of the struggle came to the fore – feelings of desire, impotence and power, breakups and connections in the context of the struggle against racism.  There was respect and honesty, real coping, as old wounds were re-opened and re-inspected with the benefit of time and reflection; perhaps more important, certainly more attainable, than resolving the contradictions of the past.

In my view the white student left of the 1960s failed to come to terms with Black Power or Black self-determination.  To make a long, complicated story short, eventually SDS, to take a major example, turned cravenly to the Black Panthers for acceptance and legitimization, only to end up breaking with them as well, as SDS collapsed.  Black Power obviously had something to do with white power, but its over-determination, its trajectory meant more that whites need to chill, and do anti-racist work that was not predicated or dependent on Black approval.

We are more than a generation removed from this moment, but despite the significance of the Obama election, we are not exactly past it.  The Black and white ‘lefts’ still circle each other warily and the stark realities of life for most Black people have not been transformed.  Blacks today have a better chance of doing jail time than graduating college and the socioeconomic disparities are still gaping.  The immediate economic crisis works to compound the long-term racial crisis.  Last week it was worth looking back so we can look forward and do better.


Complexity and Summer Reading

May 15, 2009

Complexity & Summer Reading

As I try to grapple with the intricacies of the financial crisis, evaluate Obama’s regulatory plans, understand energy and pipeline plots in Central Asia, grasp the interconnectedness of our environmental problems, chart the machinations of imperial plotting, take the measure of the juggernaut that is industrialized agriculture – I could go on – it strikes me that one of the great problems for ordinary people, not to mention the left, is how to take the measure of problems of such magnitude and complexity. I try hard to stay informed and I have more leisure to do so than most people, but I have become weary and dispirited from my efforts. The grand appeal of mythologies like the ‘market is self-adjusting’ is that it removes the necessity to think about anything hard while it is made to apply to almost anything.

Lenin responded to the complexity and abstraction of the workings of big capital by calling for a set of ‘professional’ revolutionaries who would have the time, energy, and discipline to both decode its workings and strategize successfully against it. The problem was/is real but alas, his disciplined Bolsheviks proved incapable of responding to the demands of running a modern state resulting in Stalinism and bureaucracy before the system finally collapsed. The party system did not produce people who thought creatively or for themselves. The Soviet system not only betrayed democratic values, engaged in crude nationalistic power politics; in the name of productivity it proved at least the equal of capitalism in promoting environmental disaster.

Perhaps the only way forward is to foreswear professional expertise, the scientific affair with bigness and speed, and remember that we as a community need to take care of each other and clean up after ourselves. There is no mechanism that is self-adjusting that will relieve us of the necessity to think hard and act with wisdom. The fantasy that there is a technological fix for our problems is seductive because it pretends that social transformation is unnecessary and the need for exhausting, caring and thoughtful labor can be transcended. Science and technology will not disappear and can be useful tools for human liberation, but not as substitutes for human solidarity. Community needs to be created and renewed in intentional, labor-intensive practice.

This perspective does not obviate the need for critical analysis and political accountability; human scale and basic ethics have to be the core context for our analysis and political activity; otherwise we will be captured by the complexities of power and detoured by inaccessible utopias or impotent reform.

What is disappointing about Obama so far is his inability to break out of the twin straitjackets of the Clinton/Bush regimes – the ‘market’ metaphysic and the ‘war on terror’ imperative – despite the obvious crisis in both frameworks. He continues to consult the smart financiers and generals who have created or compounded our mess. The market – however lubricated by empty promises from the private insurance industry — does not produce the equity necessary for effective and accessible health care. Downplaying torture and making Afghanistan (+Pakistan) his war do nothing to fulfill his promise to change “the mind set” that produced the Iraq war.

Summer Reading

Perhaps my sense of being overwhelmed by big complexities leads me to devote my summer reading to what can only be termed “family values” reads:
(1) Annette Gordon-Reeds’ Pulitzer Prize winning The Hemingses of Virginia – her fascinating attempt to recover the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known family.
(2) Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century – the rise of a powerful Saudi family in the age of energy and its prodigal son who sought a larger canvas for his story.

I intend to immerse myself in 18th and 20th century family values. So far I am 200+ pages into Gordon-Reed and I am not disappointed. She uses the psychodramatic microcosm of the family of a revolutionary celebrity to lay bare the human workings of an inhumane system. I am not well-read in the historiography of revolutionary America or the life of Thomas Jefferson, and only a little better informed on 18th century Atlantic slavery, so I cannot be sure of what’s new to historians, just what strikes me. When Gordon-Reed routinely refers to Sarah (better known as Sally) Hemings (Tom’s unmarried partner for 38 years and mother of 7 of his children, 5 of whom survived childhood) as the (half-) sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson (Tom’s marriage partner for 10 years and mother of 6 of his children, only 2 of whom reached adulthood), my sense of family is expanded and so is my understanding of the intricacies and intimacies of the American system of slavery, as well as the private melodrama of the apostle of revolution. The denial, first of the reality and then of the significance of these relationships, speaks volumes about the way Americans have not come to terms with the meaning of slavery for our, society, culture and morals.

That one of the protagonists of this epic narrative — as historian David Blight suggests in his blurb — of Shakespearean proportion is the iconic American tribune of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” not only places the account beyond irony, but allows us to examine in detail the strange interplay between American-style idealism, white supremacy, and the constrained struggles for self-determination of the excluded that uniquely frame the larger American story. What was the reaction on the Jefferson plantations to Lord Dunmore’s promise to free those who would fight with the British in the Revolution? How did Martha’s enslaved relatives respond to her dying in 1782, as well as to Tom’s resulting disorientation? How did the Hemings family navigate the opportunities permitted and limitations imposed by their life with Jefferson? What did the master and enslaved make of Enlightenment, pre-Revolutionary Paris during Tom’s tenure as US ambassador in the 1780s? Often the written record is thin; much must be extrapolated from Tom’s account books, but Gordon-Reed’s informed speculations help orient us to the Hemings perspective in ways that open new doors to our understanding of the slavery experience. While the experience of the relatively privileged enslaved Hemings only conveys to us perhaps the most benign expression of the slave system, it is nonetheless, or perhaps more convincingly, an eye-opening window on its core hypocrisies.

She has also much to teach about Jefferson’s limited perspective as a slaveholding upholder of liberty and its price for those privileged to be under his control. Here Gordon–Reed puzzles over the meaning of Tom’s absenting the Hemings women from field labor:

Everything he wrote about women suggests that for Jefferson biology was destiny. Their defined roles vis-à-vis males and children were the reasons that the home was the most suitable place for them. Where did that leave the enslaved women at Monticello who were not members of the Hemings family?

The issue as in so many areas of Jefferson’s views on race was that certain truths had to be overridden (rationalized) when they bumped up against an extreme self-interest that did not rest comfortably with the implications of those truths. …White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self-interest, not sincere belief, is the signature feature of the doctrine. It finds its greatest expression, and most devastating effect, in the determination to state, live by, and act on the basis of ideas one knows are untrue when doing so will yield important benefits and privileges that one does not care to relinquish.

Jefferson’s special treatment of the Hemings women allowed him to think of himself as a “good” and “kind” master. By exempting them from labor in the fields, he set them apart from the other black women who tended and harvested his tobacco and wheat, putting them into a social and, no doubt, psychological limbo-for the women themselves and the white men around them. The great irony is that in doing this he also cut them off from the traditions of their African foremothers. …In the vast majority of the West African communities, from which most slaves in North America were brought, agricultural work was women’s work to a substantial degree. To the African mind, there was nothing unfeminine about this.” (pp. 118-19)

In these short paragraphs, she not only sums up the history of whites and white supremacy in our country, she also critiques western impositions of women and femininity.

More as I continue to read.

Questions about US International Policy: Focus on Africa

May 9, 2009

Questions about US International Policy: Focus on Africa

With attention focused on Afghanistan Pakistan, and Iraq, I’d like to draw attention to other international issues that are not on media radar, particularly Africa:

1. The United States officially owns 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries.  Can these bases possible be necessary for American security or is this really the frontline of empire, a means of intimidating ‘force projection’? These bases are both provocative and expensive. Are they one more example of imperial over-reach?

2. To what extent does the “war on terror” despite Obama’s abandonment of the term, still define US international strategy in Africa, to take on example of an area discounted in most discussions of world policy? The Bush-initiated AFRICOM has led to the militarization of an Africa already consumed by too many wars. The US is expanding its number of bases — in Djibouti, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, Sao Tome and Principe, and negotiations for more. The focus on counter-terrorism has undermined US efforts to play a positive role around Darfur.

Pursuing a parallel track of counterterrorism intelligence sharing with Khartoum has undermined the capacity of the United States to use diplomatic and economic leverage to pressure the Khartoum government into ending the]genocide and allowing the full deployment of UNAMID (UN/African peacekeepers).

3. The current crisis in Somalia grew directly out of the AFRICOM strategy of supporting an Ethiopian invasion to topple an Islamist government (Islamic Courts Union):

Today, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) [in Somalia] is divided and ineffectual in the face of a growing Islamist insurgency. Basic services like food, water, electricity, transportation, and education are largely unavailable. Though the Ethiopian army has just pulled out of Somalia, its two-year tenure in Mogadishu was punctuated by numerous accusations of human rights violations. For two years, the TFG and the Ethiopian army were both extremely unpopular, and yet they stand as visual proof of what the U.S. once called its model for the “Global War on Terror” in Africa. …The civilian death toll since the invasion is now close to 10,000. More than one million people have fled their homes, including half of Mogadishu’s population, and are now living in makeshift refugee camps. The UN now estimates that more than 3.25 million people currently need food aid. As desperation for food and security increases, it’s not surprising to see disaffected Somalis resorting to piracy and other forms of violence.

4. What is the US role in the Congo, where in the last decade over 5 million have died in war, the deadliest conflict since World War II? Why does it support the Rwandans and their agents?

The United States needs to reassess its relationship with the powerful Rwandan Army. Today Rwanda is a proxy for U.S. interests. Even while U.S. officials insist that Rwanda isn’t intervening in the DRC ([Democratic Republic of Congo], the recent report by the UN Security Council Group of Experts confirms vast Rwandan support for General Nkunda’s Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) [deadly fighting continues in the North Kivu region between government forces and rebels loyal to General Laurent Nkunda. Nkunda’s recent threat to expand his rebellion beyond the eastern region to overrun Kinshasa threatens to plunge the whole country into deadly civil war again. Experts estimate that 1,000 people die every day in the DRC due to conflict-related causes. …Continued fighting has displaced millions and created an impossible situation for humanitarian workers. Food shortages have resulted in mass malnutrition and starvation.]. This report included extensive evidence of high-level communication between the government of Rwanda and the Tutsi rebel group. Further, it details that Rwanda has facilitated the supply of military equipment, officers, and recruits, some of them children, and held fundraising meetings and opened bank accounts for Nkunda. Clearly, U.S. support for Rwanda hasn’t resulted in greater security in the Great Lakes Region. Instead, the reality has been further destabilization and violence.

5. What are the implications for international policy in Africa of the financial crisis? As trade lawyer Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, tartly noted after the recent G-20 summit,

One page of the communiqué identifies ‘major failures … in financial regulation and supervision’ as ‘fundamental causes of the crisis’ … while the next page reaffirms the leaders’ commitment to concluding the WTO Doha Round negotiations that require further deregulation of finance.

Now the US is stimulating its economy in just the same ways denied by the IMF and World Bank – in the name of structural adjustment –to poor countries in economic crisis. What exactly does Obama mean by denoting one of his 3 main goals for Africa policy: “to accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy?”

Policy alternatives which aim to protect Africa from the ravages of global neoliberalism include: the JUBILEE Act to expand debt cancellation for nations being strangled by their debt burden?

Also, Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) introduced the Stop VULTURE Funds Act (HR 6796)  in 2008. This bill tries to outlaw the antics of so-called vulture funds, which have increased the debt of poor countries.

A vulture fund is a fund or investment company that seeks to profit by buying distressed debt and suing for exorbitantly high returns. Debt cancellation advocates are focused on a particular subgroup of vulture funds — those that target distressed sovereign debt. These companies buy up the debt of poor countries at a big discount from the original owner (either a government or a commercial creditor) with the purpose of suing the indebted country in court once the poor country has some money (often after debt cancellation) to recover the original debt and make a profit.

Waters’s bill would

outlaw profiteering from sovereign [national] debt by capping the amount of profit that a fund can reap through litigating against poor countries to collect defaulted debts. It also requires disclosures from any fund that pursues vulture fund activity through the U.S. courts.

6. What is in store for global aids policy? Obama seems to be moving away from an abstinence-only strategy for PEPFAR – the US AIDS fund set up by Bush —  money, as his appointee Eric Goosby suggests ( ). How is the US supporting the priority of improving the health infrastructure of poor nations to improve the delivery of treatment on the ground?

Other links with a perspective on Obama’s policy in Africa:

So here I have attempted to raise questions to see where Obama will carry on or move away from the Africa policies of the Bush Administration. These could be multiplied about other parts of the world. For instance, is Obama making a fundamental break with Bush policy toward Latin America by allowing Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to Cuba, by not interfering in the Salvadorian elections or by shaking hands with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela? Or will he resist Latin America’s push back against the Washington consensus? Will his policies be guided by the “war on terror” and neoliberal globalism or will he find his own ground and open up space for other initiatives?

More on Immigration and on Torture

May 1, 2009

Completing the Thoughts

I want to follow up and update some issues from earlier blogs.
1. It may turn out not to be the case that contaminated hog waste from pork giant Smithfield subsidiary Granjas Carroll (raising 950,000 hogs annually) — in La Gloria in the state of Vera Cruz where people have been ill since – is the source of the outbreak of swine flu. Apparently the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is sending a team to investigate these industrial pig farms. But the reaction to the outbreak encapsulates perfectly the North American reaction to globalization and immigration, with the recently resurfaced memory of the flu pandemic of 1918 – which killed more people than the armies of World War I — in the background.

First the anti-immigrant forces have opportunistically seized the moment. The head of ALI-PAC (Americans for Legal Immigration) blames the pandemic on America’s failure to seal its borders. Anti-immigrant activist Frosty Wooldridge intones “such outbreaks of diseases stem from cultures that lack personal hygiene, personal habits and standards for disease prevention.”

Then there are the reassurances from government and health bureaucracies that as Mike Davis puts it:

One of its [the outbreak’s] first victims has been the consoling faith, long preached by the World Health Organisation, that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health. Since the initial H5N1 deaths in Hong Kong in 1997, the WHO, with the support of most national health services, has promoted a strategy focused on the identification and isolation of a pandemic strain within its local radius of outbreak, followed by a thorough dousing of the population with antivirals and (if available) vaccine.
…The swine flu may prove that the WHO/Centres for Disease Control version of pandemic preparedness – without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health, and global access to lifeline drugs – belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as Madoff securities. It is not so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as it simply doesn’t exist, even in North America and the EU.

Even if an effective vaccine can be created, how many months will it be before vaccines can be produced and distributed and who will get access?

So let’s turn, as is our wont, and identify the source of the problem as neoliberal globalization. Even if the source of the swine flu is not yet determined, it behooves us to look at the larger contours of the problem. Let us begin with what Professor Robert Wallace calls the post World War II “livestock revolution”, the replacement of small farm animal husbandry by huge animal factories.):

That model was subsequently spread around the world. So, starting in the 1970s, the livestock revolution was brought to East Asia. You have the CP Group, which is now the world’s fourth-largest poultry company, in Thailand. That company subsequently brought the livestock revolution into China once China opened up its doors in 1980. So we have cities of poultry and pork developing around the world.
And this phenomenon goes hand in hand with the very structural adjustment programs that the IMF and the World Bank helped institute during this time. So if you’re a poor country, you’re having financial difficulties, in order to get some money to bail you out, you had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. And in return, the IMF would make demands on you to change your economy in such a way that would allow you—will force you to open up your economy to outside corporations, including agricultural companies. And, of course, that would have a detrimental effect on domestic agriculture. So, small companies within poor countries could not out-compete large agribusinesses from the North that are subsidized by the industrial governments. So they’re not able to compete with them, so there’s—they either must contract their labor and land to the companies, foreign companies that are coming into their country, or they basically retire out of the business and sell their land to the large companies that are coming in. So, in other words, the spread of the cities of pork and poultry go hand in hand with this structural adjustment program.
And, of course, NAFTA is our local version of that. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993, instituted in 1994, and has had a subsequent effect on how poultry and pigs are raised in Mexico. So, from that time, the pattern I just described, the small farmers had to either bulk up, in terms of acquiring the farms around them, acquiring the pigs around them, or had to sell out to agribusinesses that were coming in.

Besides the lure of low wages, lax environmental regulations – government regulation tossed aside by structural adjustment and given lip service by NAFTA so as not to discourage investment – bring waste-producing industries to the global south. And the displacement of small farmers has added to the flow of immigrants.
Concentrations of animals are excellent breeding grounds for new diseases:

A 2007 CDC report on emerging infectious diseases among hogs and hog-farm workers anticipated that a “highly virulent” virus like the one responsible for the 1918-1919 pandemic “may similarly be readily transmitted among and between pigs and humans.” The same report went on to say, “Study data suggest that swine workers … are at increased risk of zoonotic [animal-to-human] influenza virus infections.”
Concentrated feeding operations – massive facilities where thousands of animals are closely confined – are ideal breeding grounds for new infectious agents. While workers at these huge hog-breeding operations are supposed to wear sterilized clothing to minimize the spread of disease, that hasn’t diminished their exposure, judging by hog workers’ elevated antibody levels and “self-reported influenza-like illness,” according to the CDC.

This analysis of the role of neo-liberalism may be of limited help in the face of a looming pandemic. It can lend to a healthy skepticism about the state of public health and focus us to move beyond technological fixes or panicky moves to find a solution that takes into account the un-natural, human and social causes of global pandemic so as to act more effectively in the short and long runs. As Mike Davis reminds us, the market metaphysic has downplayed the importance of public health, particularly in the global south, in favor of big pharma; and as Robert Wallace insists, the hands off approach to agribusiness has left it unaccountable to local and global communities, able to disrupt and pollute communities without damage to its bottom line, but with grave consequences for the rest of us.

2. Frank Rich’s op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times summing up a recently released Senate Armed Services Committee report adds a crucial point to the contretemps about torture and supplements last week’s blog:

The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.
In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.
But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

So once again we underestimated the nefariousness of the Bush administration. The reliability of torture induced testimony was irrelevant; the goal of politically useful information resulting from torture was the bottom line. They may have understood the questionable reliability of torture-based confession better than has been assumed by critics who worry that prisoners may falsely confess to stop the torture.

A recent TomDispatch ( )
contains a piece by Karen Greenberg of NYU Law School which tries to grapple honestly with the impact of these policies on the efficacy of the human rights movement. It also notes the ambivalence of the American people about torture:

According to the latest Gallup Poll, a bare majority (51%) of Americans now favor some kind of major investigation “into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.” On the other hand, 55% “still believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified.”

This adds urgency for Americans to have a more profound discussion of the meaning of the Bush administration’s illegal, immoral, and dangerous program of torture; a discussion that Obama seems anxious to avoid.

Pragmatics of Torture

April 24, 2009

The Pragmatism of Torture

Discussing the Obama administration release of secret torture memos, Wednesday’s New York Times intoned “morality aside, the methods were ineffective.” That evening, Jon Stewart saw a torture conundrum: “what if it’s immoral, but effective”? Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair thinks that Bush-era interrogation techniques produced “high-value information”. Thursday’s New York Times defined the crux of the issue a:

in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators. But if a strong case emerges that the Bush administration authorized torture and got nothing but prisoners’ desperate fabrications in return, that will tarnish what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have claimed as their greatest achievement: preventing new attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.”

As Amy Goodman reports:

The memos provide gruesome details of the torture.  Waterboarding was used hundreds of times on a number of prisoners. The Bybee memo includes this Kafkaesque authorization: “You would like to place [Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a tinging insect into the box with him.

How does one put “morality aside” when discussing torture? The opposition between morality and what passes for pragmatism is deeply ingrained in media discourse. There is amoral realpolitique confronted by pc-purism, and they have only a nodding acquaintance with each other. Morality is hostage to the future acts of Al Qaeda (though 9/11 could have been prevented with knowledge on hand, if intelligence agencies were more tuned into obvious realties and less concerned with turf wars, cloak and dagger skullduggery, and the intricacies of interrogation.) Is the argument unsettled until Al Qaeda disappears? Are we now to be forced to endure a never-ending grand debate about whether torture is ‘effective’?

It is not irrelevant whether torture is effective. If it is ineffective, then only racism and/or sadism remains as justification, so its public defense will be unlikely. But judging the effectiveness of torture techniques will not be a simple matter and engaging in the argument casting “morality aside” concedes too much to the advocates of torture. While many insiders, particularly from the FBI, but also including some CIA agents, are convinced of torture’s ineffectiveness (sometimes citing Israel’s claimed abandonment of such techniques; Israel being the current gold standard for counter-insurgency); there will be countless others from former Director Michael Hayden to, of course, Dick Cheney arguing for their necessity of such techniques in the face of an unscrupulous enemy. Blair’s comments, as a high-ranking member of the Obama administration, only add to the confusion.

Let me mention, but then cast aside, pragmatic concerns in this discussion:
1. The extremely low likelihood of knowing that a particular individual has useful information to forestall an imminent attack (the 24 scenario).  This unlikely scenario would presumably justify no-holds-barred interrogation.
2. It legitimizes torture internationally as a weapon of the state and makes Americans vulnerable to torture.
3. It discourages surrender and encourages a fight to the death.
4. There is abundant evidence that torture victims will say anything regardless of truth value to stop the torture.
5. It ends up encouraging ‘terrorism’, as the impact of the treatment at Abu Ghraib prisoners became the centerpiece of anti-American propaganda; creating new recruits for Al Qaeda.
6. It makes the US look bad to the world and diminishes US ‘moral capital’.

All these are plausible, even important arguments, but miss the heart of the matter. Of course, undermining the case for torture’s effectiveness or citing the dangers of ‘blowback’ is relevant, but reducing the discussion to these concerns, sidelining the question of morality is a sad commentary on our level of public discourse. It implies that moral issues are mere icing on the policy cake and leaves untouched conventional and dangerous assumptions about the meaning of “national security”. Is there any limit to actions in the name of security; how are the gravity of threats evaluated? The human effects of policy become a footnote, hardly an afterthought. Waterboarding was practiced in the US war against Philipine nationalists at the beginning of the 20th century; suspected NLF prisoners were tossed from planes, prisoners’ genitals were wired, and so on in the war against Viet Nam. Bush’s rough interrogation is not unprecedented, though his justifications are more public.

Torture has been banned because it is considered inhumane. Much international law banning torture is a response to horrendous human experience of war and oppression. Torturers must be held accountable not as “anger and retribution” as Rahm Emmanuel obtusely commented last Sunday, but to provide a deterence to barbaric behavior and to set limits to government abuse of power, in other words, justice. Public discussion of interrogation, waterboarding and torture must keep moral concerns in the center. It is the diminished quality of public discourse that allows this elementary point of justice to be obscured.

Obama’s concern to avoid alienating the CIA, to appear nonpartisan and forward-looking do not match the magnitude of the crimes and the necessity for new and clear precedent. They are also unlikely to accomplish his short-sighted goals. His fumbling of this issue interestingly has troubled some of his ardent base, judging from discussions with local Obama activists, more than any other action, even his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite his promised closing of Guantanamo, many questions remain about Obama’s own policy.  Dozens of prisoners held secretly by the CIA are still missing.  What will be the fate of prisoners in Bagram Air Base — as problematic as Guantanamo?  The Obama Administration maintains the Bush administration position that prisoners at Bagram have no constitutional right to challenge their detention — though a US district judge ruled againt the administration position in the case of non-Afghani prisoners.  Though Obama has backed away from his refusal to prosecute Bush policy makers, he firmly opposes any commission to further investigate thoroughly what actaully happened, so as to avoid an unnecessary “feeding frenzy‘.

Obama’s actions with respect to torture and war are inter-related, as I will explore in my next blog. His military policy deserves both a pragmatic and moral response, as well.

Anti-Imperialism and Obama’s War in Afghanistan

April 17, 2009

Anti-Imperialism & Obama’s War in Afghanistan

I became an anti-imperialist during the American war on Viet Nam in the 1960s. I came to understand the war as the logical outcome of a long-term US strategy to gain power in Asia (at least since the Spanish-American War of 1898). The US had replaced the French as the imperial power in Southeast Asia in the 1950s. Viet Nam nationalists represented no plausible threat to American security nor were they manipulated agents of a Soviet strategy to take over the world. Ho Chi Minh had never threatened the US, and in fact had allied with Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The Vietnamese nationalists, led by the Communists, sought genuine independence and self-determination; what was termed national liberation. Soviet international policies – with the important exception of Eastern Europe (through which it had been invaded twice in the 20th century) – were essentially defensive, and sometimes positive when the Soviet Union provided support for national liberation struggles. It was not an apologia for Soviet-style Communism to recognize that its international policy did not represent the threat advertised by US propaganda.

Subsequent US interventions in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guyana and Panama added further grist to the anti-imperialist mill. Extravagant claims of Communist takeover justified coups, death squads, and even invasion. US support for apartheid in South Africa, and dictators like Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia were legitimized by anti-Communism, as well.

In the post-911 world, despite even more hyperbolic rhetoric and an intervention against a brutal dictator, it was not hard to decipher from an anti-imperialist perspective (as distinct from a corporate media perspective) that Iraq did not pose a threat to US security, but rather was a vulnerable obstacle to US control of Middle East resources.

But Afghanistan does not so neatly fit into this perspective and this may account for the loss of footing for the US left in opposing this war and presently, Obama’s escalation. Afghanistan did serve as a rear base for Al Qaeda’s 9/11/2001 attack on the US (of course, Hamburg, etc. served as forward bases) and Al Qaeda has a global strategy which is anti-imperialist in rhetoric, if repressive and chauvinistic in practice. Thus Afghanistan became the ‘good war’ for the likes of John Stewart, as well as Obama and many antiwar Democrats, as distinct from the wrong war in Iraq. For them the problem with the Iraq war was, in part, how it distracted from the necessary war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s March 27 “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” picked up this thread while fulfilling his campaign promise to carry the fight to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the spirit of the great reporter, I. F. Stone let me closely examine the words of our political leaders and quote at some length. If you are familiar with Obama’s latest position, feel free to skip past the quotes.

Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.
…To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
…There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course.

…Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.
…And finally, together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development.
…I remind everybody, the United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Al Qaeda and its allies have since killed thousands of people in many countries. Most of the blood on their hands is the blood of Muslims, who Al Qaeda has killed and maimed in far greater number than any other people.

Reaction from antiwar spokespeople has been mixed. Democrats in Congress and grassroots activists close to the Obama campaign, while wary, see possibilities, with Obama giving up on the futile Bush hope of restructuring Afghani society, opening the door to diplomatic action inside and outside Afghanistan.

Opposition to the war has so far focused on its ‘unwinnability’ Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’, but without clearly challenging its morality as an imperial war. A difficult war is still, arguably, a necessary one if the threat is dire. Obama, while clearly re-committing to the war in Afghanistan and possible/likely escalation into Pakistan, offers a challenge to anti-imperialist analysis. US withdrawal from Viet Nam meant victory for partisans of national liberation and, theoretically, socialism. What would US withdrawal from Afghanistan mean, for Al Qaeda and Muslim fundamentalists?

These issues are insightfully explored by Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmad Rashid in “From Great Game to Grand Bargain” (in November/December 2008 Foreign Affairs). They are not pro-imperialist, but see no viable alternative to hoping that the US will take the lead as the only possible honest broker — or at least one with enlightened self-interest — to lead the world from the brink of chaos; nuclear Pakistan undermined by internal extremists, fearful of India, isolated Iran, a beleaguered Afghani government, and regional powers, India, China, Russia, as well as the US maneuvering counterproductively for their own advantage. They are fearful of a purely military solution a la Bush and argue passionately for a grand bargain among regional powers as the only long-term chance for peace and stability.

Others in the antiwar camp, from TomDispatch to Noam Chomsky to most antiwar activists attempt to develop a deeper critique. Obama’s speech brought to mind, for Bill Fletcher, LBJ’s reluctant descent into the quagmire of war against Southeast Asia. This raises the further question of what Obama means when he asserts that “going forward, we will not blindly stay the course [echoes of LBJ]. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.” If the US fall short of the ‘metrics’ what will be the consequence? Can the US pull back or will the war have become ‘too big to fail’?

How might an anti-imperialist perspective help us to oppose the war in Afghanistan more effectively? First of all, we have to rid ourselves of the old, never adequate, model of their being one imperialist super-power poised against anti-imperialist freedom fighters. Opposition to imperialism can be reactionary or progressive depending on its goals, its strategies and tactics. Saddam Hussein was not ennobled because the US turned against him, nor is Osama bin Laden (recalling that both were allies of the US in the 1980s).

Anti-imperialism impels us to start from the perspective of the Afghani people. Most polls show that the Afghani people, of all political persuasions, have tired of US and NATO military operations. Air attacks – with inevitable civilian deaths – have been condemned even by the American-anointed President Hamid Karzai (though he did welcome Obama’s latest speech). Anti-imperialists must pay closer attention to what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan. This includes differentiating nationalist opposition to US and NATO interventions from opposition tied to Al Qaeda, distinguish different forces inside the Taliban, and secular opposition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, we must also pay more than lip service to the actions and expressed desires of Afghani women, the likely victims of any compromise with Taliban forces. The perspective of Afghanis and Pakistanis has been curiously absent from most, including left, discussions of the war.

Secondly an anti-imperialist perspective focuses attention on motives that lie below the media spotlight, including economic motives. What role do the energy politics of Central Asia and the Gulf play in US strategy, including the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to India? How do US forces in Afghanistan affect not only Iran, but China and Russia? Why will so many troops remain in Iraq; what is the future of contract mercenaries in the war machine? Or as Chomsky wonders: why is NATO is involved (and why does it still exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union) – when its original rationale was to protect Europe from Soviet attack?

We would also profit from linking war to the workings of capital, including financial capital and the current economic crisis. Naomi Klein did a brilliant job of linking the Iraq war to a neoconservative fantasy of Iraqi privatization. Obama asserted that “to help Pakistan weather the economic crisis, we must continue to work with the IMF, the World Bank and other international partners.” How are these international institutions implicated in the world financial crisis? As Chomsky notes, along with Brazil’s Lula, the US in the wake of financial disaster is free to do exactly what these institutions prevented third world economies from doing in the name of structural adjustment: increasing government expenditures, protecting companies too big to fail and lowering interest rates.

Why is the military budget sacrosanct in this time of budget cuts?   As TomDispatch notes,

By the end of 2009, the cost of the Iraq War — that is, of putting down another set of rag-tag insurgents — will pass that of the Vietnam War and, in dollars spent, stand second only to World War II in U.S. history. Add to that the rising expense of a never-ending Af-Pak War and — in the worst of economic times — you have the equivalent of a vast financial hemorrhage, an economic sinkhole. 

Obama’s vaunted cuts amounted to a 4% increase in the military budget. Is the economy so hollowed out that military production is the sole provider of tangible goods, as well as jobs in countless Congressional districts? As a variation on Eisenhower’s theme, has military/financial complex replaced the military/industrial complex? And to disinter Lenin, does the global struggle for markets and resources inevitably lead to armed conflict? What divisions have been caused by the wave of capitalist globalization? Who has been victimized and who has been left out?

My overall point is that a left should be linking the economic crisis to the war and not going along with the conventional separation of these connected phenomena. As insightful and knowledgeable as Rubin and Rashid are about the realities of Afghanistan, they view Afghanistan in a void, not from Central Asia, but from the reality of global economic crisis and from the dynamics of the world economy. For Americans to grasp the problem of escalating war in Af-Pak, as Washington insiders like to call it, they need to see it as connected to their economic problems.
Finally, the left needs to offer an alternative and proportionate strategy to isolate, if not eliminate, Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is dangerous and reactionary, but Bush’s and now Obama’s rhetoric is disproportionate. Al Qaeda has no army, is holed up in the hinterlands, and its tactics are increasingly being disavowed by Muslims to Al Qaeda’s consternation. What can undermine this trend would be continuing intervention in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and of course Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here we can draw upon Rubin and Rashid’s analysis (see above for link) to promote a regional diplomatic strategy as an alternative to war, not as a corollary to it, as Obama has it. They are right that there are shared interests in opposing Al Qaeda and in de-escalating regional conflicts. Most intractable is the Pakistani/Indian conflict over Kashmir — Obama’s plan pays little attention to that issue. A US without imperial pretensions – not maneuvering for energy hegemony and not blindly supporting Israel — is key to a positive outcome, if currently outside the reach of Obama’s policy.