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ON DENIGRATING THE HUMANITIES

18 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Having spent more than 70 years within privileged enclaves of advanced education, my only regret is the weakness of community cohesion due to evaluations of the worth of faculty members by relying on market assessments, that is, what a person could earn outside the university if put up for sale, or what a rival university might offer to lure a person elsewhere. My vague thoughts along these lines were given focus by the brutal frankness of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Joshua Angrist. This post reflects on Professor Angrist unqualified rationale for leaving his faculty position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a higher paying professorship at MIT. It would might seem crass to choose your country of residence by reference to its material offerings, especially if your preferred country provided you with a decent living, as was the case here, but to denigrate the humanities because they were being equally valued at an Israeli university with economics and computer science is what makes Professor Angrist emblematic. The put down of literature is mindlessly irresponsible and civilizationally obtuse at a time of unprecedented bio-ethical-ecological crisis when the humanities alone offer essential insight into prospects for a transformational adjustment.]

On Denigrating the Humanities

I was reading with interest the profile of Joshua Angrist in the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli-American MIT economist who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in economics with two others when I came upon this uncongenial sentence:Angrist said he was frustrated that many salaries, particularly in academia, were set using fixed pay grades, with professors in fields such as computer science and economics being paid the same as professors of literature, instead of being set by market forces, as they are elsewhere.”

Angrist apparently was much earlier deeply at odds with the way in which academic salaries were set in Israel. His words of 15 years ago were reprinted in The Jerusalem Post:  “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system, and it’s not very flexible.” It seems to me that Israel was engaged in admirable initiative–treating a university as a community of scholars where knowledge flourished across disciplinary borders without affixing price tags on the comparative value of differing ways of knowing to be determined by market forces. An alternative approach would be to seek higher, apparently more appropriate salaries for the faculty across the board, which might have helped create a contented community instead of alienated economists and computer geeks who rushed for the exits whenever a foreign university offered more money to attract an Israel professor.

There is a further disturbing implication of Angrist’s invidious comparison. It is as if literature, and presumably the humanities overall, were a superfluous luxury in a society where computer science and economics are valued highly by the market. The language used Angrist made clear in his view that it is the market without a scintilla of doubt that deserves to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of comparative educational valuations, and specifically faculty salaries. The Israeli journalist reported what Angrist declared without comment as his article was primarily concerned with solving the puzzle of why talented Israelis, such as Angrist, were emigrating elsewhere, in effect, interpreting a damaging brain drain. It is seems that Angrist’s personal reasons for leaving Israel were not only honest but descriptive of why many other professors valued highly in the academic marketplace were drawn elsewhere by the lure of larger paychecks.

Perhaps, displaying my own cultural malaise, I recall my educational experience as being primarily valuable for what I learned and retained from courses in the humanities. As an undergraduate at Penn’s highly rated Wharton Business School. I took 17 economics courses without any lasting effect on my sense of the world, or effectiveness in it, but received inspiration and an enduring worldview from several charismatic professors in the humanities that continues to enrich my life more than 70 years later.

Especially as an undergraduate I learned to love literature and philosophy, precious lifelong gifts. I suppose I would have been less put off by Angrist’s comment if it had been uttered with even the slightest show of regret or collegial sensitivity rather than uttered in a derisive tone that conveyed, at least to me, an crude economistic attitude ‘that the market knows best.’ I should observe that Angrist and his wife deeply regretted leaving Israel, explaining the decision as purely one of choosing the material benefits offered by the job at MIT. Although American born, Angrist emigrated to Israel in 1982 when he was in his early twenties as someone committed to the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, turning down a job at Harvard after earning his PhD at Princeton so that he might resume his life in Israel, being married to an Israeli woman and having a son born in Israel. Angrist has clearly lived a bi-national life with acknowledged tensions between the material rewards of a high salary and the unproblematic satisfactions he apparently continues to derive from the Israeli dimensions of his life.

The issue is far larger than one of personal preferences. Humanities mirror the culture, its deepest strivings, grievances, shortcomings. In my experience we cannot look to economics and computer science for how we could collectively live better together as distinct from guidance as to policy and technical problems of digital communication. Humanities are the repositories of wisdom, beauty, romance, and moral grandeur in human experience, although even poets can sometimes subscribe to demonic constructions of the world around them. At this time, more than any other, when the species is struggling with a severe bio-ethical-ecological crisis we desperately need to nurture the visionary apertures of the imagination rather than disparage them.

In my preferred academic community, there would be no differentiations based on price tags, and a sense that different knowledge traditions were equally indispensable if graduates were to be engaged citizens at a time of planetary emergency as well as enjoy productive careers outside the ivy walls.

In concluding, I wish that I could dismiss Joshua Angrist’s uncongenial worldview as a regressive and idiosyncratic departure from the cultural norms rather than being compelled to acknowledge that he is far truer representative of the national, and even the global body politic, than I am. Mine remains a voice at the outer edge of cultural relevance, yet I hear faint signs of a civilizational  awakening in the primary forms of surrounding birds, trees, and flowers, and that is enough for me, yet I know it is not sufficient to rescue the collective destiny of our species speeding toward calamity. Such a liberating rescue if it comes, will come from transformational wisdom best encoded in the humanities. In the meantime, self-satisfied economists and software engineers can collect Nobel Prizes and earn lofty salaries for their day jobs, superciliously denigrating humanists from the comfort of their deck chairs on the final cruise of the restored Titanic.

The Rebranding of Antisemitism after the Holocaust

12 Oct

[Prefatory Note: there has been past influential writing taking critical aim at the Holocaust as a cover for unrelated wrongs, most notably Norman Finkelstein’s brave critique The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, 2000, updated 2015). This post is concerned with distorting the legacy of the Holocaust by appropriating antisemitism as a policy tool relied upon by Irsrael and Zionist activists to intensify Palestinian suffering and deflect attention from Israeli wrongdoing. Such exploitation dishonors and unduly complicates by (mis)remembering the justifiably hallowed and grotesque reality of the Holocaust. Perhaps, the primary expression of this phenomenon of wrongly appropriating ‘antisemitism’ is the conflation of Zion and Israel in the widely promoted and influential definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that has been used to discredit the BDS Campaign and defame its supporters.]  

The Rebranding of Antisemitism after the Holocaust

There are no legitimate doubts about the magnitude and depravity of the Holocaust arising from mobilizing the socipathic obsession with hatred of Jews, which culminated in the satanic German resolve to puts all Jews to death solely on the basis of their ethnicity. It is no wonder that a primary legacy of the Holocaust was to render the embrace of antisemitism a hateful embodiment of evil in the post-World War II West. Yet by making the Palestinian people and their supporters bear the ongoing burdens of this grotesque genocide perverts the legacy of the Holocaust, extending the dark shadows of racism over Israel experience and identity in ugly reactive forms. As W.H. Auden reminded the world “those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

This unfolding post-Holocaust pattern of injustice originated in the lethal interactions between Hitler’s extreme racism and the Zionist Project. Zionism is best considered a utopian undertaking of a political movement within the wider community of the Jewish people. It was launched in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to European antisemitism to establish a Jewish, ‘democratic’ state in an essentially non-Jewish society (the Jewish population of Palestine was less than 10% in 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration) on the basis of an arrogant colonial pledge by the British Foreign Office. It had little prospect of succeeding even with European backing expressed through incorporating the Balfour pledge into the League of Nations approach to Palestine, given the declining leverage of European colonialism. Even this pre-fascist show of largely European support for the Zionist Project was ironically motivated in part by a soft version of anti-Semitism. An attraction of Zionism to non-Jews was its programmatic dedication to reducing the Jewish presence in Europe, an approach that the Nazis later absolutized in the years following gaining control of the German government in 1933. It is of course relevant that this encouragement of Zionist goals preceded the advent of fascism in Germany, but its consummation by way of the 1947-48 War would probably not have happened had not the Holocaust turned a visionary project with little hope of realization into a real world opportunity to make the Zionist dream come true. Yet realizing this dream was organically intertwined with a prolonged Palestinian nightmare. The nakba expressing the Palestinian tragedy featuring the de facto expulsion of between 700,000 and 750,000 Palestinians in that portion of historic Palestine set aside by the UN partition resolution for a Jewish political entity. The nakba is best understood as catastrophic experience of expulsion, but underscored by denying Palestinians a right of return, which was their entitlement under international law. As Palestinian intellectuals have pointed out in recent years, the continuation of Palestinian subjugation, victimization, and discriminatory demographic policies, make it more accurate to consider the nakba as a processrather than an event in time.

It is against this background that several regressive linkages to the Holocaust warrant articulated as not frequently acknowledged for fear of being misunderstood as a mode of belittling this pinnacle of criminality. The intention here is solely to show how the Zionist experience of coping with the Holocaust while working toward their goals of Jewish ethnic sovereignty in Palestine has persisted since the establishment of Israel in ways that are harmful not only to the Palestinian people but to Jews the world over:

            –the ultra-pragmatism of those Jewish political figures who pursued and led the Zionist Project reached its heights in negotiating with the Nazi regime to arrange the permissive departure of Jews from Germany as part of the effort to achieve demographic credibility for Zionist efforts to establish a Jewish entity in Palestine. [See Tom Suarez, State of Terror for extensive narration and documentation] Such opportunism undoubtedly was responsible for saving Jewish lives, but carried over in ways that help explain Israel’s willingness to reach diplomatically and economically advantageous relations with a variety of unsavory governments in the course of its history since 1948. Again, this was an understandable embrace of an extreme form of ‘political realism’ given the degree to which Israel was regionally isolated in what was called by its leaders as ‘a dangerous neighborhood,’ and its central mission of creating a exclusivist Jewish state in an essentially non-Jewish society was subject to censure throughout the non-Western world.

This ultra-pragmatism has taken an ugly turn in recent years when Israel and its more militant supporters themselves made use of irresponsible allegations of antisemitism as a policy tool to puss back against censure and delegitimation. Critics, as well as international institutions, were stigmatized and defamed as guilty of antisemitism. In other words, this term of opprobrium was twisted, describing not the behavior of neo-Nazis and other persons clearly motivated by hatred of Jews as an ethnicity and Jewishness as a religious tradition and cultural orientation. Netanyahu’s immediate response to the International Criminal Court’s finding earlier this year that Palestinian allegations of Israeli war crimes since 2014 should be fully investigated by the prosecutor was to castigate this legal finding as ‘pure antisemitism,’ a typical if crude example of recourse to this tactic. Any fairminded jurist would appreciate the legal diligence of the ICC Chamber decision and applaud this show of political independence. Similarly, to respond to the release of a 2017 academic report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) concluding that Israel’s patterns of governance overwhelmingly justified the conclusion that Israel had become an apartheid state. [“Israeli Practice Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” E/ESCWA/EC R1/2017/1; available by accessing ,old website ‘palestine studies./org/default/files/ESCWA/2017); in the spirit of transparency, the controversial report was written by myself in collaboration with Professor Virginia Tilley. ]. A more recent example is the ongoing effort to discredit the Durban Process by maligning this UN laudable effort to launch an anti-racist initiative twenty years ago calling for the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action, which are neither anti-Israel, nor by any stretch, antisemitic. [the Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, 2001, with outcome document the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action, A/CONF. 189/12, 8 Sept 2001. Discussed in my essay, “Demonizing the Durban Process,” Transcend Media Service, Aug 16, 2021]

Legacies of the Holocaust: Impacts on Zionist political style, European Diplomacy, and the Rebranding of Antisemitism

My contention is that this kind of discrediting maneuver with its reliance on false accusations of antisemitism can be best interpreted as a hangover from the Zionist opportunistic style that included a willingness to cooperate with the Nazis to advance its policy priority of inducing Jews to populate Palestine. During the Nazi years Zionist opportunism extended to cooperation with the worst of antisemites, while during the existence of Israel it took the form of characterizing as antisemitic anything that the leadership found objectionable.

–A second unfortunate legacy of the Holocaust is to make mere accusations of antisemitism such a potent and intimidating weapon in the domain of symbolic politics. What the Holocaust did was to make antisemitism the crime of crimes by its foundational relationship to the Nazi genocidal ‘final solution.’ The mere prospect of being so accused of antisemitism is intimidating in the way that, for example, comparably severe criticism of Islamic policies and practices is not, at least in the West. This issue has become complicated since right-wing extremists and evangelical Christians affirm Israel for their own reasons and thus join in the condemnation of its critics. [although often accompanied by similar genuine antisemitic tropes—encouraging Jews to leave so that Jesus can return]

–A third unfortunate legacy of the Holocaust is the compensatory mechanisms active in Europe and North America for the failure to act with a greater show of empathy for the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the 1930s. This is especially true for obvious reasons of Germany. Angela Merkel observed, in a casual remark, that no matter what coalition government succeeds her CSU leadership will continue to support Israel’s security, implying that no foreseeable German governemtn would dare voice criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people.

There was a reluctance of liberal democracies to admit Jews as refugees or asylum seekers heightened by the economic strains of the Great Depression, a posture incidentally encouraged by the Zionist Movement that sought to close off all possible places of sanctuary other than Palestine for Jews in need of refuge. Despite this, the behavior of liberal goverments during the Nazi years helps explain the faint sense of liberal complicity in this period of Jewish ordeal, and may help account for international passivity in Europe and North America with respect to addressing Palestinian grievances. There were some signs that this mood may be slightly changing during the May 2021 assault on Gaza.

Concluding Remarks  

My main contention is that the Holocaust experience accentuated the tendencies of the Zionist movement to be opportunistic in the course of its long effort to attain, little by little, its territorial and ideological goals. This opportunism has had the further effect of greatly hampering the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, particularly the right of self-determination. Such assessments do not pretend to be the whole story of Zionist success and Palestinian frustration. Many factors also contributed shaping present circumstances, including the geopolitical muscle provided by the United States.

The UN after 75: What Next?

6 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of a text published in TMS (Transcend Media Service) on 5 October 2021. It assesses the record of the UN over the decades on the basis of its constitutional design, its operational experience, and the gap between UN capabilities and the global need for dramatically enhanced human solidarity mechanisms.]

Worthy, Worthless, and Harmful

I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was in different settings worthy and worthless, or actually worse than worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal if based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter or the stirring familiar words of commitment at the beginning of the Charter Preamble: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Such a pledge could be called almost worthless, especially its apparent grant of agency to ‘peoples’ on such grave matters of state as recourse to war, as well as by purporting to have substituted a global rule of law for war as a social institution and to have displaced the primacy of geopolitics. The implication that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or for transgressions of fundamental legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious even by only reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this pretense of reaching for the stars is far from the whole UN story.

To begin with, the UN didn’t ever seriously aim as high as the words of the Preamble would lead one to believe. The UN was primarily hoped to become a lasting presence on the global stage, and this it has accomplished. The Organization managed to induce nearly every country on the planet to join, and afterwards value its membership sufficiently to stay involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced deep splits in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether establishing and maintaining this arena providing many venues for diplomatic contact between adversaries had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that likely would have been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the League of Nations the fate of UN was not decided before it was even tested by aggression and war. The original champion of the League, the United States, refused to join. This stuck a heavy blow to the birthing process of the League, whose reputation was further seriously undermined by the subsequent withdrawals of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following for a variety of reasons.

By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms the beliefs prevailing even among the most cynical political leaderships among national governments that it is more advantageous to be active within the UN than to rely on going it alone. Understanding why this has become so, even among detractors of internationalism as is the case with virtually the entire political class of foreign policy advisors in P-5 states who continue see global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ Such realists see the UN as a useful enough foreign policy tool to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests. The UN’s survival and usefulness is a partly a result of Members and high-level UN civil servants understanding and respecting the strong constaints on its effective authority.

Framing Faustian Bargains

This mild, but indispensable governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to entail an unconditional surrender to the machinations of geopolitics. First, and foremost, by constitutional design the UN gave the winners in World War II permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council the only organ of the UN with authority to reach obligatory decisions. In effect, this was an acknowledgement that the UN had neither the authority nor the intention of overriding the political will of these five permanent members, and would have to live with or without their discretionary adherence to Charter norms and procedures, especially in the domain of international peace and security, and behavioral patterns based on self-restraint and prudence. Such hopes of voluntary compliance were not entirely in vain, but often seemed so, particularly at times of geopolitical confrontation, perhaps most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis( 1962). Catastrophic adversity was avoided throughout the Cold War mostly by good luck, although some would give credit to doctrines of mutual deterrence and the related fear factor arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons poised to launch missiles if attacked. The UN was usually on the sidelines anxiously watching international crises unfold, reconciled to its role as a virtual spectator, or at most, a helpless commentator. [See definitive exploration of this assertion in Martin Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2021)] In other words, the UN by its constitutional framework and its operational reality defers to the most dangerous states in the world as signified by hard power capabilities. This affinity between hard power capabilities and P-5 status was reinforced by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also the first five countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

The second rationale for this hierarchy of membership in 1945 was to make a maximum effort to avoid a repetition of the League experience. From this perspective it was imperative to keep major states involved as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing in specific contexts. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong as in the early UN experience the Soviet Union was consistently outvoted on central peace and security issues. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given recognition and free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members acting on their own in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm throughout World War II would stay together to assure the peace.

The Soviet Union came to a dramatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining participation when its absence from the Security Council in 1950 due to a temporary protest against the refusal of the UN to recognize the Chinese Peoples Republic as representing China meant that it lost the opportunity to veto the Council decision to condemn North Korean aggression and give its blessing to the action by Western governments to join in the operations of collective self-defense on behalf of South Korea. The Soviets reacted by immediately reoccupying their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake. It is significant that what they didn’t do was to threaten or actually withdraw.

In a sense, this deference to geopolitics involved a pair of Faustian Bargains. In both instances, the UN refrained from its inception to make any serious attempt to impose its authority on geopolitical actors, which introduced a gaping right of exception into all Security Council proceedings. It is mostly the operational reality of this concession to hard power that leads many in the public and media to the perception that the UN is worthless as it is seen as playing no role in wars that involve the participation of P-5 members. This perception has been reinforced by patterns of unlawful behavior on the part of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the more specific normative architecture of the UN’s own Charter. We cannot know what would have ensued after 1945 if there had been no permanent membership and no veto in the Security Council, but we can make a good guess. The UN might have turned into a Western anti-Soviet alliance or would have completely lost its relevance as a result of political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and uses of force in manifest violation of the UN Charter. Another line of conjecture would seek to imagine the likely UN evolution if the FDR image of keeping the East/West alliance vibrant with a new priority assignment of keeping the peace in the dawn of the nuclear age.

Achievements of The UN System

When we turn to the case for worthiness, the argument is on one level obvious and on anther is somewhat subtle and elusive. The obvious part is that the resources and energies of the UN System are concerned with much more than the peace and security agenda, providing guidance and valuable assistance in such varied areas as development, human rights, economic and social policy, environment, health, culture, and education. Beyond these substantive domains the UN provides indispensable auspices for the management of complex interdependence for many mutually beneficial transnational undertakings. Among the most important UN contributions is host a variety of cooperative activities comprising multilateral diplomacy of global scope. The UN has a strong record of offering its facilities and backing for lawmaking treaties covering a diverse range of global concerns including the public order of the oceans, peaceful uses of outer space, protection of endangered animal species, world trade.

The subtler case regarding the UN as a worthy contributor to a better world is its role in the domain of symbolic politics, which can be understood by regarding the UN as ‘a soft power superpower.’ The UN Secretary General is almost alone as a globally respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess and as a trustworthy alarmist with respect to climate change and the COVID pandemic. The periodically elected administrative leader of the UN exert some influence on world public opinion through their statements of concern, but rarely challenge directly  geopolitical behavior.

More relevant is the capacity of the UN, primarily in the General Assembly, but throughout the UN System to shape perceptions of legitimacy and illegitimacy in ways that exert important influences throughout civil society. The reality of such a perception can be most easily captured by the degree to which states struggle to achieve UN approval and to avoid having the UN pass critical judgment on their behavior. The UN endorsement of the anti-apartheid campaign is one of the factors that both mobilized activism in civil society and eventually led the leadership of the South African apartheid regime to reverse course. The frantic pushback by Israel to UN-backed allegations of racism and criminality, and more recently, of apartheid is further confirmation that what the UN does symbolically matters, and sometimes deeply.

Although Currently Worthy, a Stronger UN is Possible and Necessary, although it seems Unlikely

The COVID experience exposed the essential weakness of the UN when it came to promote and protect human interests in a health crisis of global scope. The ethos that prevailed was both an exhibition of the non-accountability of the geopolitical actors, and more broadly, the prioritizing of national interests and shared civilizational values in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to prevent the scandalous hoarding of vaccines, which made descriptive such pejorative labels as ‘vaccine apartheid’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ This experience is disturbing beyond COVID as it offers a metaphor for the global persistence of statist world order, which is partially enacted by marginalizing the UN in the face of an acute crisis of global scale. The record of response is only slightly better when it comes to fashioning a collective response to the dire expert consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. [See Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021)]

We are left with the haunting question of whether pressures toward unity and global public goods can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate such awakening into a movement capable of achieving a UN oriented and empowered to serve, at least selectively, the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the prorities of geopolitics.      

WHAT A TRAVESTY! Iron Dome Subsidy

25 Sep

For the United States to pay the bill for replenishing missiles in the Israel’s Iron Dome defense system used during the Gaza attack in May is a travesty of law and justice. And for such an initiative to gain support for such a measure by a vote of 420-9 in an otherwise hopelessly divided U.S. House of Representatives should be an embarrassment rather than the occasion for restoring this questionable Special Relationship no matter how adverse its unconditional maintenance is for the wellbeing of the people of the Middle East and the strategic rationality of American foreign policy.

Iron Dome Mystifications

There has been much false reasoning surrounding this latest promiscuous affirmation of Israeli militarism. The Iron Dome is presented to the world as a purely defensive weapon whose only role is to save the lives of innocent civilians. If that is so, why not deploy an Iron Dome system in Gaza, as Alison Weir has observed, where it is really needed by an utterly defenceless blockaded civilian population that has endured massive civilian casualties from repeated Israeli missile attacks for many years. Anyone aware of the devastation and civilian casualties endured by the Gazan population of Gaza in May would understand that Israel would have thought twice before launching such an aggressive military operation if its population and cities would have been as exposed to retaliatory strikes as are the people of Gaza. One need not be a student of military strategy to know that offense and defense are lethally interconnected under combat conditions.

Not only is the Iron Dome mispresented, but the underlying military attack, with the puzzling IDF code name “Guardian of the Walls,” was falsely described as a ‘defensive’ response to the ‘terrorism’ of Hamas and affiliated armed groups. Ignored by such media reporting is the Israeli inflammatory background and context. Rockets from Gaza were preceded by a series of Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including safeguarding Jewish extremist marches through Palestinian neighborhoods with such chants as ‘death to the Arabs,’ settler violence against Palestinians, and several intrusions and interferences with Muslim worship within the Al Aqsa compound during a period of religious holidays.

Comparing Civilian Casualties

When the assessments of responsibility for loss of life and the true identity of perpetrators of terrorism are made, it is illuminating to compare the casualty statistics of these periodic Israeli military operations carried out against a totally vulnerable Gazan entrapped society. One of the prime guidelines of international humanitarian law is the requirement that any military use of force be proportionate in response; another prime norm is the prohibition directed at ‘collective punishment’ in Artlcle 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: in Operation Cast Lead, 2008-09, 14 Israelis were killed, 1434 Palestinians; in Operation Pillar of Defense, 2012, 6 Israelis, 158 Palestinians; in Operation Protective Edge, 2014, 73 Israelis, 2100 Palestinians; in Guardian of the Walls, 2021, 12 Israelis, 256 Palestinians.  

This comparison of lives lost is revealing, but even this is far from a complete portrayal of one-sidedness, as Gaza is routinely denied in the aftermath of the carnage, access to materials needed to repair the worst of the damage to people and property, quite arbitrarily for long periods, aggravating what passes for normalcy in the best of times in Gaza during intervals between massive attacks. There are frequent limited military strikes, border violence, and a host of intrusions by way of drone surveillance and sonic boom overflights.  

Against such a tormented background, the US Government should at least refrain from subsidizing Israeli militarism even beyond the already disgraceful $3.8 billion per year. Besides, the moral and legal considerations, one wonders why Israel should be a recipient of such geopolitical charity when its economy is robust, having achieved one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, with cutting edge technologies, and a profitable, expanding market for its arms industry and counterterrorism training programs. Not only should the US be ashamed, but humiliated by erecting such a platform for national bipartisanship despite remaining hopelessly split on what should be apolitical imperatives: a humane border and immigration policy, adequate funding of infrastructure and social protection, keeping the electoral process open to all citizens and preserving political democracy in the face of insurrectionary violence, and devoting all available public funds to address the multiple menaces attributable to climate change.

What About Israeli Nuclear Weapons?

The strategic perspective is also relevant. Serious war dangers in the Middle East persist in large part because the West cannot deal evenhandedly with nuclear weapons. It long ago facilitated the secret acquisition, possession, and development of this weaponry by Israel and stands committed to war if necessary to thwart Iran alleged approach of the nuclear threshold. Because Washington does not dare to challenge Israel’s nuclear option, the US is forced against its interest to join Israel (and Saudi Arabia) in confronting Iran. It should be evident to any fair-minded observer that Iran has a persuasive security case for a nuclear deterrent given constant threats and violations of its sovereignty by Israeli and U.S. military provocations. It should be obvious that security, peace, and economic development would benefit all the peoples of the Middle East if a nuclear free zone were established in the region, monitored and verified internationally. At the same time, it would reduce to near zero the dangers of a regional war and the strategic inhibitions associated with keeping Israel as the only country permitted to have such weaponry with not even a pretense of accountability.

What About Israeli Apartheid?

What would be in the foreground of subsidizing a foreign military would be some reflections about its human rights record. In the case of Israel, the fact that during the past year both B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, both respected human rights NGOs, concluded after exhaustive study that Israel was guilty of the crime of apartheid, a conclusion also affirmed in concrete detail by the fearless Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy. Apartheid is listed among the crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute, which is the treaty framework governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. Congress turns a blind eye toward the growing consensus that Israel is an apartheid state, a conclusion virtually acknowledged by its own adoption of a Basic Law in 2018 that proclaimed Israel as the state of the Jewish people with further implication of Jewish supremacy, not only in Israel but in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that is, in the whole of historic Palestine. And through it all, the mainstream media takes bland note of this dubious reaffirmation of support for Israel with no attempt to address the dubious implications of such diplomatic lockstep.

What About the Palestinian Right of Resistance

In view of this, at the very least the discourse on Israel/Palestine should at least acknowledge a Palestinian right of resistance operative within the limits set by international law. It is time to abandon dismissing Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism’ and Israeli oppressive dominance as inherently ‘defensive.’

When these considerations are taken into account, we should begin to appreciate how regressive a move it was to donate $1 billion for a new supply of Iron Dome missiles at this time. We should pause to thank the Squad for standing strong, and wonder why those who in Congress stand behind the struggles of people of color of America fail to exhibit even minimal signs of solidarity with the victims of the Palestinian ordeal.

9/11 + 9/12: COMPOUNDING TRAGEDY

22 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies threats and confines the political and moral imagination. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and faced with the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure.

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies international threats and confines the political and moral imagination to the realm of coercive responses. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and then face the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure. Daniel Ellsberg delivered a vital message 50 years ago–the citizens of a democracy deserve to be told the truth, and a government that refuses, deserves resistance not mute obedience–that continues to be unheeded by the enforcers of the political class.


REACTING TO CRIME BY WAGING WAR(S)

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a somewhat edited post-publication version of Part One my responses to questions posed by Daniel Falcone, published in CounterPunch, September 12, 2021, with the title of “9/11: Doctrines of Bush, Obama, Trump & Biden.” Although online the interview was schedule in response to the national attention understandably given to the 20th annual observance of the 9/11 attacks. The focus of my response follows a different line of reasoning. In this sense, my response, as suggested by the title give to Part One, can be read as suggesting that greater transformative effects resulted from 9/12 than the tragic events of 9/11 due to the vengeful recklessness of the U.S. response, partly pushed to excess by a belligerent neoconservative pre-9/11 agenda, which became politically viable only after the provocation of the attacks. It is a reflection of the deficiencies of political pedagogy and journalistic priorities in the United States that despite all that has happened at home and abroad in the course of the last twenty years, virtually no distinct attention is given to 9/12]

9/12: Reacting to Crime by War(s)

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on September 11, 2001 as a historical event and provide how this day continues to shape the way the United States sees itself in the world?

Richard Falk: The attack itself on 9/11 was a most momentous event from the perspective of international relations, with the salient initial effect of further undermining the dominating historic role of hard power under the control of national governments in explaining historical agency. That role was already eroded as a result of high-profile anti-colonial wars being won by the weaker side militarily, principally as a result of the mobilizing effect of the soft power stimulus of nationalist fervor and perseverance in achieving political self-determination by resisting foreign intervention and domination.

Dramatically, 9/11 revealed the vulnerability of the most powerful country, as measured by military capabilities and global security hegemony, in all of world history, to the violent tactics of non-state combatants with comparatively weak military capabilities in coercive interactions labeled by war planners as ‘asymmetric warfare.’

On the basis of minimal expenditures of lives and resources, al-Qaeda produced a traumatizing and disorienting shock on the United States and the American body politic from which it has yet to recover, generating responses in ways that are fundamentally dysfunctional with respect to achieving tolerable levels of global stability in a historical period when security threats were moving away from traditional geopolitical rivalries so as to respond to climate change, pandemics, and a series of systemic secondary effect. While not fulfilling its goals, the launching of a ‘war on terror’ produced great devastation and human suffering spread far and wide, distant from the American homeland, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

Such an efficient use of terrorist tactics by al-Qaeda, not only as an instrument of destruction, but as a mighty symbolic blow directed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, embodiments of American economic ascendancy and military hegemony. These material effects were further magnified by the spectacular nature of visual moment unforgettably inscribed on the political consciousness of worldwide TV audiences, above all conveying the universal vulnerability of the strong to the imaginative rage and dedicated sacrifice of the avenging weak who were induced to give the lives to make a point and serve a fanatical cause.

Of course, the ‘success’ of this attack was short-lived, producing an initial wave of global empathy for the innocent victims of such mayhem, heralding widespread support and sympathy to the United States, exhibiting an outburst of internationalist solidarity, including widespread support from governments around the world and at the UN for greatly augmented efforts at criminal enforcement of anti-terrorist policies and norms. Yet this early international reaction sympathetic to the U.S. has been erased in the American memory and international perceptions, as well as long overshadowed internationally by dual damaging effects of the American over-reaction that claimed during the next twenty years many times the number of innocent victims than were lost on 9/11, but also was on the losing end of prolonged, costly interventions and state-building undertakings that went along to show that the American imperial prowess was indeed a paper tiger. This over-reaction has also contributed to counterrevolutionary impacts worldwide that are still reverberating.

The seemingly highly impulsive and reactive responses to 9/11 by the American leadership was to herald the immediate launching of ‘the war on terror,’ which should be understood as a generalized forever war against a generic type of political behavior rather than declaring was on an adversary state. Before 9/11 terrorist tactics even if prolonged and threatening to the stability of the state, were regarded as a severe type of crime or anti-state criminal enterprise, with serious policing and paramilitary implications but not a matter of military engagement on conventional battlefields. Of course, on many prior historic occasions a political movement engaged in terrorist activity as a prelude to a sustained insurrectionary challenge to the prevailing government. This U.S. response by way of war, directed not only at the al-Qaeda perpetrators mainly situated in the mountains of Afghanistan, but potentially against all forms of non-state and foreign political extremism directed at the interests of Western states, made the historical effects of 9/12 far greater internally for America and externally for the world than the grim event of the prior day when the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, killing 2,997. The ‘forever wars,’by comparison killed as estimated 900,000 (at a cost of $8 trillion) [conservative estimates of ‘The Costs of War Project’ at Brown University].    

It is crucial to remember that 9/11 from the moment of the first explosion was politically much more than a mega-terrorist attack, however spectacular. It quickly provided a pretext for projecting American military power and political influence that the dominant wing of the political class then in control of the White House was awaiting with growing signs of impatience. It was no secret that the chief foreign policy advisors of George W. Bush wanted and needed a political mandate that would allow the U.S. to carry out a preexisting neoconservative agenda of U.S. intervention and aggression, focused on the Middle East that prior to 9/11 lacked sufficient political backing among the citizenry to become operative foreign policy. This earlier neocon foreign policy agenda was set forth in the reports of the Project for a New American Century (1997-2006), prepared and endorsed by leading foreign policy hawks with global hegemony, Israel, and oil uppermost in their thoughts. For those seeking even earlier antecedents “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for the Security of the Realm,” an Israeli policy report of 1996  prepared by influential American neocon foreign policy experts at the behest of Netanyahu is worthy of notice. The haunting reality that the 9/11 attack was masterminded and orchestrated from remote sites in Afghanistan reinforced the globalist ambitions of militarists to the effect that U.S. was significantly threatened by non-state enemies situated in geographically remote places on the planet, that deterrence and retaliation were irrelevant against such foes, and that preemptive styles of warfare were now necessary and fully justified against government that willingly gave safe havens to such violently disposed political extremism. New tactics seem needed and justified if the security of a country, however militarily capable, was in the future to be upheld against remotely situated non-state enemies. This post-9/11 strategic discourse produced a sequence of forever wars, most tellingly in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria and Libya, which were quite unrelated to al-Qaeda rationale for expanding prior notion of the right of self-defense, whether understood with reference to international law or geopolitics.

Another legacy of 9/11, although also evident in the outcome of the Vietnam War, is that the side that has the military superiority no longer has reason to believe that it will attain a political victory at an acceptable cost. “You have the watches, we have the time” vividly imparts the largely unreported news that perseverance, commitment, and patience, more than military hardware however sophisticated, shape political outcomes in characteristic conflicts for the control of sovereign political space in the 21st Century. Whether this trend will continue is, of course, uncertain as war planners in governments of geopolitical actors are devoting resources and energies to devising tactics and weapons that will restore hard power potency.

The message of a changed balance of power at least temporarily, despite the startling consistency of the evidence, is one that the political class in the West, especially in the U.S. refuses to heed. The militarization of the foreign policy establishment of Western states over the course of the Cold War, is also reflective of the ‘political realist’ ideological consensus led to a costly and futile process in which security challenges were predominantly seen through a reductionist lens that impoverished the political imagination by ignoring the shifting power balances that have favored the politics of post-colonial nationalism. The previously hidden weaknesses of external intervenors were exposed. These weaknesses included the onset of geopolitical fatigue in these combat zones distant from the homeland coupled with a lack of political success at all commensurate with the effort. The military prowess of the foreign intervenors being more than offset over time by nationalist perseverance, although at great costs for the resisters. The intervenors strain to justify these foreign missions to a domestic public that gradually comes to understand that the security claims used to ‘sell’ the war were all along a phony façade partly erected to hide the benefits to special interests within and outside the governmental bureaucracy, including the defense industry and private contracting firms that complemented the explicit military presence, and were economic winners even if the government was a political loser. Although brainwashed over the years, with the help of a corporatized media, there remained a remnant of accountability to the citizenry if American lives were sacrificed in a lost war that also revealed itself to be quite irrelevant from a security perspective. The victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or of the Taliban this year is not likely to alter the regional status quo to any great extent further demonstrating that the war strategy was not only a failure but superfluous from a traditional security perspective, although consequential geopolitically.

It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal from ongoing forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere leads to a belated recognition of what I have in the past called ‘the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War.’ So far, this is far from clear as the inflated level of the U.S. military budget, with its huge negative domestic opportunity costs, continues to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support. Also telling is the tendency to meet the rise of China by bellicose posturing that may have already generated a second cold war that neither the country nor the world can afford or risk turning hot. Perhaps, the American political class has temporarily learned the lesson that state-building interventions do not work under current world conditions, but still harbor reckless beliefs that geopolitical ‘wars’ remain viable options, thereby providing continued validation of inflated military spending and consequent policy orientations toward conflict and rivalry rather than conciliation and compromise. China, admittedly bears some responsibility for escalating tensions due to its provocative militarist moves in the South China Seas and economistic provocations. The Biden foreign policy has clearly designated China as a credible geopolitical rival that threatens U.S. geopolitical primacy, and hence must be confronted as well as contained, even resisted by force of arms if necessary.   

We should not overlook the lingering skepticism surrounding the official version of the 9/11 events. The official inquiry resulting in the report of the 9/11 Commission convinced few of the serious doubters as it put to convincing rest none of the reasons for doubt. As long as this, doubt remains embedded in a portion of the citizenry, no matter how castigated they may be as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and routinely maligned by mainstream media, a shadow of illegitimacy will be cast over the U.S. body politic. A truly independent second 9/11 investigation backed by the government is long overdue, but seems highly unlikely to happen. If given unrestricted access to FBI and CIA records and subpoena powers such an authentic processs could clear the air, and a crucial regenerative future for American democracy that might finally overcome the legacies of both 9/11 and 9/12.

The Bipartisan Demise of American Democracy

16 Sep

There are several fissures in the democratic fabric that exhibit the domestic facets of imperial decline. The Republican Party contempt for liberal American values, traditions, constitutionalism, the findings of science and truthfulness, became routine features of the presidency of Donald Trump. This radical style of right-wing politics became more flagrant during the long aftermath of Trump’s defeat in the November elections, going to bizarre lengths of trying to foment a violent insurrectionary event in the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2020 after a series of legal challenges of the election results in state courts on the basis of ‘stolen votes,’ ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘warped fantasies’ of fraud. Such pervasive posturing by demagogic leader should scare the anti-fascists among us, especially as almost half of Americans voted in favor of such an sustained assault on democracy. Shamefully, most Trumpists have yet to abandon this unprecedented threat to the political identity of the country.  

And yet the alternative mainstream vision of democracy, while a relief, is disappointing, especially as it tries to appeal for support on the issues and in statewide elections. The Democrats offer the citizenry such a demeaning, tedious, and dangerous sense of an alternative political style as to demobilize all but diehard liberals and movement radicals. Is it any wonder that the Democrats are poised to do poorly in the 2020 midterms despite this dark long shadow of Trump hanging over the future of the republic. Trump, part demagogue, part entertainer, at least while President kept us politically attentive, if only to wonder what would be his latest mishap or to learn about fabrication of the day. With the Biden presidency, we switch channels out of boredom, even when his sentiments are decent and compared to what passed for leadership in the preceding four years, seemed mostly sensible. But being ‘sensible’ compared to Trump is hardly an achievement. I attribute this dramatic downturn in the quality of American democracy mainly to the interaction between the elite political structures of the two main political parties, its removal from the needs and desires of the citizenry, and a distorted sense that it is money, not ideas, that wins elections. The effect of this incessant badgering for donations for the sake of political ads is to reduce the electoral process to cash on hand.

On any given day I get upward of a hundred emails soliciting funds to support candidates or legislation that Democrats favor, and are generally deserving of support. But the approach adopted in these electoral pleas are so cheaply demeaning, disingenuous, and even degenerate as to be alienating. Instead of support, I find myself pushing the delete button frustrated and disgusted with the tenor of the appeals. First of all, I don’t like being called by my first name by automated strangers; this faux intimacy is a definite turnoff, especially when it is followed by admonishing tone—donate, or else. It is, as well, a metaphor for a cynical politics of manipulation.

Secondly, our attention is grabbed by idiotic exaggerations such as ‘STUNNING update-Amy Klobuchar just broke McConnell’s heart,’ ‘H.R. 1 Miracle—We’re weeping with joy,’ ‘Richard, humbly asking,’ ‘HUMILIATED Arizona—Donald Trump CRUSHES Mark Kelly,’ ‘desperate plea—Rep. Val Deming is in BIG trouble,’ ‘Rush a donation now to TANK the filibuster and pass H.R. 1,’ ‘Shocking Report—Obama SLAMS McConnell..YES RICHARD,’ and on and on. The uniform bottom line for these urgent inflated appeals has to do with pleas for donations. Typical of the hyped rhetoric: If we don’t hit our $100,000 goal by midnight, we’ll never have the resources we need to fight McConnell’s Filibuster, which is RUINING H.R.1’s chances of becoming law. Can you chip in just $100 now to help us make our next ad payment?”’

It is true that the Democrats are more dependent on grassroots funding than are the Republicans who can rely on super-rich donors and big ticket fundraising extraganzas to finance their campaigns to a much greater extent. Yet this does not validate the cheapening of the political process as the Democrats have done where their hysterical language about the ups and downs of their candidates or legislative projects. Although ‘the system’ is primarily to blame, and needs fundamental reforms, in the meantime politics in America seems destined to be stranded indefinitely at low tide.

We can assign some blame to social media for making it seductively easy to do mass messaging, symptomatic of the wider phenomenon of the overall dumbing down effect of the digital age. Digital successors to the sinister, cynical mavens of Madison Avenue are now using crude algorithms to bend our thoughts, empty our wallets, and deprive many of sovereignty over their own mind. It is rot at the core of American political life that unapologetically equates politics with money. We are made to think that ideas, character, and past performance matter less than fundraising acumen. The corrupting impression is powerfully implanted in the citizen that the side with more bucks deserves to get the win.

Of course, the messaging is about power, and this means that mainstream media and social platforms reflect the wishes of Wall Street and the Pentagon as much for Democrats as for Republicans. Pacifying the citizenry so that markets and militarism can continue their dirty work is an assignment accepted by both political parties, and backed up by the most influential media platforms. As the infrastructure of the country falls to new lows, the bloated military budget remains sacrosanct. Billionaires roam the solar system as if planning their getaway from a failed planet, exploring new terrains as they peer down on an overheated, burning planet unwilling to risk their fortunes for the sake of species survival.

My objections to this ultra-materialist and hyped style of political campaigns can be summarized:

1-elections for Democrats have become primarily about fundraising capabilities, not qualifications, values, ideas, performance;  

2-hypocritical gestures of intimacy in this monetized culture of political appeals are deemed necessary to induce in ordinary citizens the illusions of ‘participation’ and even personal access to the candidates;

3-Beyond the hypocrisy, secondary efforts seek to make recipients feel guilty because they have not contributed, or not responded to rhetorical requests for support or opposition; I find myself daily scolded for not responding or accused because of not donating of supporting the dreadful Republican alternative;

4-There is an impression created that only ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ matter, and thus devotion to one side should unconditional, and more or less unquestioning, although the Democrats are more naïve, preaching ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘national unity,’ which is the last thing the Trump extremists want.

Such a decline of democracy is strongly reinforced by the reactionary unwritten ground rules of mainstream media, which dutifully exposes the citizenry to a spectrum of opinion that stretches from the dead center to the extreme right. The progressive left, whether socialist or ecological, is erased, as if it has nothing to add to the marketplaces of ideas and interpretations. The media dominated by large corporations and billionaires is willing to self-censor to protect the capitalist consensus being eroded or just challenged.

Perhaps it is time to try something different, starting by ending the three-ring circus of private funding of political campaigns. Of course this will not happen until the Achilles Heal of capitalism and militarism are found and struck with decisive force, which would almost certainly be the result of an empowering nonviolent movement, which unlike its Pentagon variant, is genuinely over-the-horizon.

FOUR REMARKABLE WOMEN

13 Sep

profiles of Four Remarkable Women

FOUR REMARKABLE WOMEN

[Prefatory Note: This post is a departure from my usual themes. It reflects anamateurish interest in depicting a fascinating form of feminism that is exemplified by certain exceptional women who I have been privileged to know. It was originally written to be a chapter for my memoir, but when the manuscript became longer than the publisher could accept, I was persuaded that this fixation of mine was too peripheral to my life to be spared editorial surgery. I was compelled to cut 100,000 words, and this way of ‘publishing’ is one way of saying that my life is bigger than the book!]  

Four Remarkable Women

Angels would not condescend
to damn our meagre souls.
That is why they awe
and why they terrify us so

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies, First Elegy

(Translation: Robert Hunter)

A Group Portrait

To attempt to depict a human genotype or sociological template that binds together these supremely individualist women who are so unlike one another is an act of hubris. Yet somehow in my experience, they form a vivid tapestry in my mind that has certain shared shapes, colors, and images. It is this that I wish to recall, fully aware of the hazards, but also as an acknowledgement of my lifelong joyful dependence on feminine inspiration.

I have written in my memoir [Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (2021) praising the achievements of several remarkable men who created by act of will, innovative learning communities that flourished while they lasted outside of ivy walls. Here I present four remarkable women who exemplify the opposite kind of human perfection: standing erect and alone, splendid in their sometimes bizarre, yet always valuable, isolation. Each has a distinct posture of somewhat defiant solitude that is waging war against the conformities of sociability and political correctness that provide comfort zones for most of the rest of us. These women are often written off as eccentric or hopelessly opinionated. I am among those who cherish and adore them for their vividness, candor, the special forms of knowing that they impart, and a kind of wisdom that flows from a rare fusion of detachment and engagement. I noticed that whenever I have met someone comparably close to any of the four it immediately melts the ice of a first encounter, establishes rapport, and immediate bonds of trust. It is as if a secret society of admirers exists without ever being consciously formed, somewhat in the manner of the ancient goddess cults, for instance the Oracle at Delphi.

I met none of these four women until I was in my late fifties, and Rosemary only by email, and then not before celebrating my eightieth birthday. It makes me wonder whether when younger I overlooked those women who chose to stand alone before the world, but thinking back I cannot recall anyone that I have overlooked, although Zsa Zsa Gabor and Claudette Colbert who crossed my path often while I was an impressionable teenager were glamorous versions of the upper reaches of feminine charm that I found enchanting, and many other women over the course of life have projected auras at once vivacious, sensuous, sensual, and magnetic that have enlivened my life in ways that the British poet/essayist Robert Graves so memorably described in The White Goddess.

There are several shared qualities that these four women possess. Despite their magnetism, the other three either never married or had life partners or if married, it was a brief foray onto hostile terrain. Three of the four were content to live without children, but not without family, and certainly not without friends. Each relished being the source of provocations, as well as being unabashedly contrarian, exaggerates wrongs and rights in the world, and divides people in her experience into polar categories, usually of intense like and dislike, approval and disapproval. There are no shades of gray in their color spectra. No man I have ever met shares these characteristics, or even comes close. These women are a breed apart, obviously proud of being non-replicable. They fashion a distinctive habitat for themselves that scares off the timid and thin skinned, and delights devotees.

Their life style and personality is more important in defining their sensibilities than their politics or even their life work, but each in their very different ways, work to the point of exhaustion, and have had to cope with serious health issues. Two of the four nurture serious love relationships with animals, possibly partly as a reaction to their antipathy toward patriarchy. Each of the four is capable of filling a room with light and laughter, will be always noticed, and never forgotten.

Beware, as well. Any of the four can take over the lives of others with a flick of their wrist, molding them to their imagining as a potter might clay. It is usually for the sake of healing or fulfilling the potential of others, but the pattern reflects the paradox of super-strong individuals stomping on the relative passivity of others, who may indeed benefit or even yearn for such guidance, welcoming this kind of overbearing push by women with a sparkle.

For myself, I have listened to and learned from each of these women. Each has a gift of clarity, and even certitude, that contrasts with my often overly cerebral ambivalence. Each found a pattern of living that frees birds from their cages, which by itself, is enough to make me feel inspired and captivated, and empathetic, if a project one of them embarks upon goes awry. As with all who hold reason in contempt, while following their passions, their stern judgments on some occasions will seem too extreme or even cruel to those of us composed of milder metals. What redeems even their missteps is their undisguised intolerance toward knaves, fools, and self-important roosters, as well as their unerring antennae for outing those they condemn and celebrating those they affirm, to whom they bestow love.

Each has an ‘impolite’ integrity that makes their assertiveness seem belligerent to some, but I found that if I stood my ground quietly, a mutual respect would slowly take hold, and even adverse opinions would not be allowed to cast a cloud over the sunshine of valued closeness and cherished affirmation. I have been blessed by having the trust and maybe even a touch of non-romantic love from each of these four remarkable women who left deep footprints on whatever paths they chose to walk. Despite the totally different quality of Marilyn Monroe’s more accessible and brand of charisma, Elton John’s wonderfully moving celebratory lyrical tribute, ‘Candle in the Wind’ also describes the intensity of living achieved by these four iconic figures.

Gloria Emerson

Gloria Emerson came first like a bolt of lightning illuminating the gray clouds so often hovering over Princeton. I believe we first me in 1990 after leaving her illustrious journalistic career behind. Of all these four women, Gloria, left the heaviest footprint on public consciousness. She won the National Book Award in 1978 for Winners and Losers. It was a brave contrarian book notable for putting a focus on the suffering and devastation endured by the people of the Vietnam and on the American vets wounded in either mind or body in Vietnam. She recorded their ordeal with a passion and an empathy generally absent in mainstream reporting on the combat realities of an American war. In a passage from the book that is often quoted she summarized this dynamic of killing from a safe distance that existed before drones became the American weapon of choice in the post-9/11 period: “Americans cannot perceive, even the most decent among us, the suffering caused by the air war in Indochina and how huge are the graveyards we have created there.” This is not a message the American mainstream wanted to hear.

Always her focus was on how war caused suffering to people and their habitats, and most of all to those who were weak and vulnerable. She was also one of the first prominent journalists to take on the Israeli dehumanization of the Palestinians, publishing a moving account of her experience of living for a year in Gaza. Her book, Gaza: A Year in the Intifada (1991) looked upon the conflict from a people-oriented perspective, and aroused completely unjustified accusations of its anti-Israeli portrayal, which she shrugged off as being not worthy of response. Perhaps, these ethical/political affinities produced a spontaneous trust between us, not because we put politics first, but because we allowed our emotions and shared values to shape our political assessments. This identification with a variety of struggles from below is what brought us close, although as we came to know one another, it did not spare me from searing criticism whenever I felt short of her expectations.

When I first encountered Gloria, she reminded me of those rich eccentric women who live on Park Avenue and often wear odd looking hats at public events. She was tall, a commanding presence in any social setting, and capable of either warm reassurances or biting criticisms. By the time we met she was done with the mainstream journalism, being a rather negative alumna of the NY Times.  She reacted against the surrender of this esteemed media institution to the worlds of corporate advertising, political correctness, and Washington militarism. Without knowing it, Gloria taught those around her, what is meant by the phrase ‘talking truth to power.’ Her maternal sides, which were genuine, and like her other attributes when expressed, were strong. She seemed to attract various kinds of protégées, maybe the best known of whom was a young Sy Hersh, someone she somewhat mentored and at the same time greatly admired. As if Princeton was the Vatican, and Gloria its Pope, Sy would make periodic pilgrimages. I would put myself, although older, and without notable public achievements, in the same category as someone who Gloria liked and respected, yet benefitted from her stern reprimands and self-assured guidance. 

Gloria committed suicide in 2004, apparently convinced that as her case of Parkinson’s Disease worsened, she would steadily lose the ability to do the one thing, other than befriend those she affirmed, that in those last years, gave meaning to her life, which was to write for publication. She left behind her own handwritten obituary that conveyed her honesty that never spared herself and her satiric feeling about what it meant to be a woman working in the trenches of mainstream journalism. Unsurprisingly, her parents were from a socially prominent background and quite wealthy due to oil investments, but ended up squandering everything. As a young adolescent she escaped from what she recalled as a ‘wretched alcoholic family’ and only got the chance to cover the Vietnam War because the NY Times mistakenly thought the war was over before it, and hence okay to send a woman on an assignment that no longer involved exposure to combat conditions. In reality, I heard from many sources that she was more fearless than her male counterparts who rarely strayed from their Saigon hotels and relied on locally hired assistants for ‘eye witness’ accounts of unfolding events. Gloria developed a strong following among American disaffected soldiers in Vietnam who sought her counsel and friendship when they returned, often traumatized, to the United States. She brought her literary gifts to bear in describing the misery of the maimed and the wounded on both sides of that miserable war that caused so many casualties, including those occurring far from the combat zones that are not included in the statistics of that war’s casualties.

Gloria’s presence in my life was surprisingly profound considering my age and the how late in my life met. Above all, she was quite judgmental toward the women then in my life, mildly disapproving of Elisabeth Gerle and more starkly averse to Mary Morris, while unreservedly affirming of Hilal. I know in retrospect she was unfairly judgmental toward Elisabeth and Mary, perhaps reflecting her growing disenchantment with all things Western, while saving her affection and empathy for those who came from the non-West. Was she still struggling to shake off the sinister influence of her blueblood wayward WASP parentage? Maybe these negative judgments in combination with the awesome arrogance of American war tactics as observed up close in Vietnam had given rise to a pervasive sense of alienation as she grew older.

 Of course, Hilal was not really from the non-West, much less the Global South, but I suppose Gloria responded, as so many did, to her Turkish charm, genuineness, Muslim identity, and progressive sentiments. While in Sweden 1900-91 during my time as Olaf Palme Visiting Professor, I relied on Gloria’s judgment on several occasions. I was unable to return to my Princeton residence to avoid losing a U.S. tax break associated with staying out of the country for at least 330 days during the calender year, and yet wanted to find a new place to live as the tenants at my Prospect Avenue house made me a purchase offer I didn’t want to refuse. I trusted Gloria’s judgment more than that of others, when choosing a new home for myself. I bought the house without ever seeing more than pictures and was sensibly swayed by Gloria’s ardent clarity.

Undoubtedly, Gloria’s biggest influence on my life was to strengthen my resolve to marry a fourth time. After Florence I had decided that I was not well suited to marriage, neither its routines nor its constraints. I had quested after romance and mutual love before I was even a teenager. I was useless by background and temperament as a household partner. This form of inadequacy can be traced back to a middle class childhood where at that time at least in Manhattan most children were expected to stay away from the kitchen. and even in our financially stressed situation, not allowed, much less expected to do house chores. Besides, monogamy didn’t come naturally or early to me, which led my partners to become more possessive than was comfortable for them or me. Since a child I was fascinated by feminine sensuality, including the Giaconda smile, colorful attire, sensual expressiveness, and sexual enticement. I had not met Hilal until the fall of 1994, that is, after Sweden, but I think I owe Gloria posthumous thanks and many hugs for making me brave enough to make a life commitment one last time. I can affirm that this somewhat unnatural commitment has greatly enhanced the quality of my life during the ensuing 27 plus years.

Gloria did more that provide psychological support. She had a practical side. Despite an aura of otherworldliness at times, she had a knack for getting things done. She even found a minister in Princeton willing to marry us, not a foregone conclusion as it meant joining a Jew with a Muslim in holy matrimony. She persuaded her neighbor Sue Ann Morrow, the Protestant deputy chaplain at Princeton, who presided over an ecumenical ceremony of the three Abrahamic religions in the living room of the house that Gloria had chosen for us.

I mention these impacts on my life partly to be suggestive of the degree to which Gloria took benevolent charge over those she cared about, making things happen, even using her modest material resources as needed. She did this impressively by medically facilitating the courageous Palestinian human rights leader in Gaza, Raji Sourani and his wife, facilitating the birth of their children. I want to convey the sense that what made Gloria get happily intoxicated was not scotch, not political engagement or even journalistic scoops, but acts that to most others would seem irresponsibly rash at the time, but later would be properly viewed as private miracles.

One Thanksgiving in the early 1990s we were both alone and decided to celebrate this ambiguous national holiday of thanks together. We hunted around for a restaurant near Princeton that was open, and finally found a rather expensive Scandinavian hotel in a wooded area not far from Princeton. We sat at a quiet table, entranced by the flames of a nearby fireplace, enjoying a typical Thanksgiving meal. Yet what was memorable for me about this meal was the of the rare silent intervals that serenely paused our animated conversation. When that happens in human interactions, it seems a sure sign that a friendship is secure enough to engender trust. I have only discovered in old age that is not primarily words that confirm intimacy but how silences are handled, either as grim expressions of alienation or as telling signs of true closeness and utmost trust.

I never for an instant doubted Gloria’s virtues or the joy and guidance that her friendship brought into my life or the gifts she conferred on so many, and through her work on the world. In the end our distinctly platonic love flourished because we worshipped the same gods. It never occurred to validate this love of ours with even a single romantic kiss. Her book Loving Graham Greene is a sly confessional about how love and loving could be real, especially when left untested by contact.

Deborah Sills

On the surface, Deborah seems the most ‘normal’ of the four. She was married to our UCSB colleague, Giles Gunn, and they were jointly devoted to their daughter, Abby, as were we. They lived on the northern rim of Ventura in a house fronting the ocean and overflowing with the latest books of high culture with many heaped on a huge living room coffee table. I remember scanning the latest arrivals to decide which book I must read next. Deborah taught religious studies with zest at a nearby Lutheran university.

But in the end this façade of normalcy seemed a cover fashioned to obscure somewhat what set Deborah apart. It may have been her infectious laughter or the radiance that lit up the darkest of social occasions. Or possibly, her exuberance for life that never lessened even when severely tested by a long struggle with terminal cancer that she daily enduring throughout the years we knew her. Hilal knew Deborah far better than I. They immediately established the sort of friendship that gives others the impression of being so deeply rooted that it must have been formed their kindergarten years. Among Hilal’s many admirable qualities is her deep rapport with super-strong women, including those with commanding, even domineering, personalities that often intimidate, threaten, arousing envy among lesser beings whether women or men, in part because they absorb most of the social oxygen in the room. Hilal trusts selectively but with absolute and unflinching loyalty, but when she does, she is trusted and beloved in return. This was the case with Deborah.

Deborah’s tragic final years were never short on exhibiting those qualities that made her remarkable. Her strength of being was so compelling than as a seriously ill patient she was able to lure her renowned Houston cancer specialist for a friendship visit to their Santa Barbara home. Despite the pain, the constant treatments, and of course the underlying sadness that comes with the knowledge that there is no cure, she was intent on collaborating with her local attending doctor on a book that was the most demanding of undertakings, a memoir devoted to the experience of dying that gradually takes over the experience of living. We all die, and are dying throughout our life, but mostly we are blessed with sufficient health as to be able to enjoy living without taking much account of our inevitable mortality. What made Deborah inspirational was that despite the severe stress of her deteriorating health and impending death she retained her undiminished zest for life, rescuing the rest of us from the pitfalls of complacency or bestowals of pity.

Few of us would have the courage and energy under such conditions to come to Istanbul alone to teach a literature course at Bosporus University, living by herself in campus housing, and adventurously moving around this impossible city without the benefits of speaking Turkish, companionship or even prior familiarity with the place. Not only did she cope, she loved the experience of this fascinating, picturesque city, and such was her elation that she didn’t even mind being cheated by taxi drivers now and then. I remember our dinners together that summer were always fun, upbeat, and without any hints of what would for most mortals would be such a dismal reality as to keep them pinned down at home.  We were on opposite sides of the Bosporus, which with Istanbul traffic ordeals, made each meeting complicated logistically, yet gratifying.

Deborah’s joie de vivre that was evident in so many ways, including her vibrant devotion to those she affirmed, loved, and inspired. I can still remember Deborah grabbing Abby one night while we were together for several days on ‘a blue voyage,’ our vessel anchored in one of the harbors of enchantment close by the city of Bodrum, and dancing with wild movements of joyful abandon as the boat swayed in the evening breeze. I am sure that Abby will never forget what seemed a peak experience for both mother and daughter. If the moment remains so alive for me, a mere witness of this spectacle of love and delight, what must it be for a daughter so spontaneously celebrated.

Perhaps, because these remarkable women are such strong presences, it is a rather difficult challenge to be their partner. Giles faced this challenge in ways that displayed both his appreciation of Deborah’s transcendent qualities but also the strains that come with such hallowed territory. I have no knowledge of how well Deborah dealt with the routines of marriage and family life, but she always gave me the sense, perhaps wrongly, of someone who for better and worse was profoundly alone, not a disappointed solitude, but that kind of empowering individuality that Nietzsche celebrated. I have the weird phantasy that if Nietzsche had been a feminist, he might have been inspired to choose Deborah as his life model for Zarathustra.

Ceylan Orhun

Ceylan is at once the easiest and most difficult of my chosen four. She remains a work-in-progress living in solitude on a steep hillside outside the village of Mazi, with a magnificent view of the waters of the Aegean that surround the Bodrum peninsula. Her container-built house, an unlawful and ungainly structure constructed without a permit, which is apparently only obtainable in many parts of Turkey through bribe of local petty bureaucrats. Hilal ‘met’ Ceylan on email due to their shared concerns about conserving the water resources of Turkey more than twenty years ago.

Ceylan was from a successful Kemalist family, her father being a military officer who upon retirement, followed the American patterns, entering the business of arms sales. Her brother and sisters enjoyed notable conventional lives in various places, and all were well educated and cultured. Ceylan was close to her parents, and when we knew her, built a kind of hospital room for her mother to allow her to be close and comfortable in the last years of her life.

When we first knew Ceylan in the years following the AKP rise to power, we often met in social gatherings in Istanbul and later in Torba, where she had a fine house close to the water. I kept as silent as possible whenever the conversation touched on Turkish politics as my views, especially in that early period of 2002-09, when I marveled at what the AKP had achieved, did not sit well in Kemalist circles. In contrast, the secular opposition gave angry, worried voice to their phantasy fears that Turkey was becoming a second Iran and that Erdoğan was well on his way to becoming a dictator in the Putinesque mode, while threatening to fracture the Turkish geopolitical comfort zone, which had for decades tied the country’s foreign policy tightly to Washington’s shoestrings. We usually met in the company of Ceylan’s friends in her apartment on the square in Istanbul containing the Gallata Tower. Ceylan’s guest tended to be wellborn and likeminded in their unreflective hostility to the political tide that swept across the country in the first decade of the new century. sweeping across Although they did not say as much, at least in my presence, they would have welcomed a coup by the Turkish armed forces undertaken in the name of safeguarding the endangered principles of Kemal Ataturk. In fact, whether openly or not I had the impression that they would have welcomed a military takeover that restored the private and public sector dominance of the Kemalist elites. Although by this time, twenty years later, the Ataturk legacy has somewhat weakened, yet still the great leader’s picture remains by the far the most present, but still many magnitudes less so than when I first started coming regularly to Turkey in the mid-1990s. In one respect, Kemalism, as expressed through the life and work of Ataturk, functions as not Erdogan, not AKP, in the Turkish political imaginary.

There is no doubt that Ceylan, never reluctant to speak her mind, can be provocative, even hurtful, as she was when telling Zeynep that her knee pain resulted from psychological, not physical, disorders. Or telling Hilal, immediately on meeting after a lapse of a year or so, that she looked older and had put on lots of weight. With me, maybe because I was older by at least twenty years, she never made those somewhat cruel kinds of observations, and took mercy on my knees as they worsened. In her early years at Mazi we stayed comfortably in a guest house a few hundred yards down the hill, but more recently, we were given a more accessible guest room in a cottage next to where she lived.

There are many amazing aspects of Ceylan’s life that put her on a high pedestal. Before her knees betrayed her rhythmic ambitions, she would go to Buenos Aires every year just to learn and practice tango, acquiring a stately house in the Argentine city and devoted friends along the way. We were always impressed, and admittedly a bit envious, that wherever Ceylan went she seemed to acquire real estate, and then later dispose of it at a big profit. We displayed our considerable talent for doing the opposite, buying high, selling love. She even owns a large tract of land in Uruguay that is suitable for olive orchards, and maybe an olive oil business. Ceylan time after time makes it clear that she is much closer to her dogs than to the excitements of real estate deals, and maybe even people, excepting ourselves, of course, which I note with a smile of self-deprecating irony.

As impressive, despite an urban upbringing, Ceylan became an all-consuming horticulturalist, raising exotic plants and trees with native habitats throughout the hemisphere. She has written a book, so far available only in Turkish, explaining how she became such a gourmet gardener. People who have read what she has written, sing praises. With only sporadic help with the work, and a sprawling garden that needs daily care, occupying distances that would take at least ten minutes to cover by a brisk walker, Ceylan rises before dawn to provide water, eliminate weeds, and whatever else it takes to make such a huge garden flourish despite the absence of reliable rainfall. She spends no less than four hours per day so challenged by what the earth has to offer when well loved.

Yet above all what impressed us most is the choice, the sheer madness of it, to live alone in a home that require a SUV to manage an almost impassable dirt road that winds through the steep inclines. We have only crawled along the road during the dry months, and found it so bad as to tempt us to stay away, but if rain and mud are around, as in the Winter months, the road mounts a challenge no ordinary car could survive To be so alone day after day, and even more so, night after night, without being required to live in such a seemingly austere and lonely way, puts Ceylan in a class apart from what Aristotle had in mind when he described humans as ‘social animals.’ This life choice, one no ‘life coach’ would dare recommend, is made more noteworthy, and in a way puzzling, when we take account of how much Ceylan loves to be with people, hospitably provides delicious food and excellent wine, shares generously her plants and flowers. There are mysteries here, but probably not for me to decipher.

As I write the mysteries are being deepened. A wild fire in August of 2021, the second COVID year, chose Mazi as a place to ravage, and Ceylan’s hill, including the love of her life after retreating to deep country—a libertarian garden—was almost destroyed by this vengeful display of nature’s fury. Ceylan admits that this apocalyptic intrusion on her way of life has raised doubts about whether she can restore the atmosphere, turn what is now mostly black and brown back to mostly green. The grit displayed in even returning to such ravaged scene already qualifies as heroic. If she persists, and manages to maintain restorative mission until its completion—undoubtedly ‘building back better’—it will likely shape the rest of her life, and imprint an image of what it takes to be a 21st century pioneer in the minds of awestruck friends who could never endure the rigors of such a life for more than 24 hours, myself included. For Ceylan it is both a retreat and an embace.

I am so grateful for Ceylan’s non-judgmental friendship, which is not so widely bestowed as near as I can tell. She knows we disagree on many trivial things such as politics, but she also seems to know that on the essentials of living and life, truth and beauty, we agree, and we do. On most matters of good and evil here on earth, particularly in Turkey, we seem content generally to avoid, seeming to sense that our different perceptions, backgrounds, temperaments and experiences might bring tensions, angry grimaces, and if pressed, even tears.

Ceylan as with the other three ladies of distinction, possesses strong magnetism. People come to her despite the challenging remoteness of her residence. She almost never leaves her hilltop for social purposes, making exceptions only for her health and that of her dogs, and for the weddings of her nieces and cousins. If I lived so remotely, I cannot imagine having a single visitor per year. Even my children, although expressing ritual regret, and maybe feeling occasional pangs of guilt, would find ample reasons to stay away. I draw such a comparison as my way of bearing witness to both Ceylan’s high voltage social magnetism and my own shortcomings.

Rosemary Tylka

I suppose it is a bit odd to include Rosemary. We have never met in person. I totally reject some of her impassioned opinions. We have only a few close friends in common. She was at first ill-disposed toward me, a story she likes to tell. After all, she is a dedicated expatriate and I a seemingly sterile American, and worse, could come across as an apparently loyal servant of its imperial government.

Such an initial reaction was understandable. Rosemary, who is intensely critical of Israel and Zionism, first heard of me when I was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 to be the replacement for John Dugard, as Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine. Rosemary rightly believed that John, a South African jurist who had gained political maturity during the height of apartheid, had done a fantastic job at the UN, exposing Israeli violations of international law and the crimes against humanity that were the core realities of its prolonged occupation of Palestine that had started after the 1967 War. It was quite reasonable for her to expect the worst from his successor. Isn’t that the way the world works? Or at least the UN? Especially, since it was widely known that Israel had lobbied hard in Geneva for the selection of someone who shared their concerns, and would spin the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in a Tel Aviv direction.

I am not clear what softened Rosemary’s gaze, perhaps some in her circle who had worked with me on past occasions. I think one person who came to my rescue was Vera Gowlands, a progressive international law and human rights professor who lived in Geneva, and developed a commitment to the Palestinian struggle. Whoever it was, it brought Rosemary tumbling into my Internet life as no one before or since has done. Her passions were raw and almost always linked with her elaborate past life of service to important persons for whom she had worked or befriended, ambassadors and ministers, especially from the MENA countries. Rosemary could recall the details of encounters and gala parties from decades ago as if they had occurred the prior evening. It led me to encourage her to write up a life so rich in exotic detail. She could narrate an endless string of social entanglements in exotic settings filled with endearing recollections illustrating the lives of these vivacious personalities with whom she worked and played. As with Gloria, Rosemary found young persons of promise, whether male or female, and did her generous best to goad them into fulfilling their potential. And like Ceylan, found her ‘divine’ cats a source of love and admiration, and lent her energies to animal welfare efforts in Cairo and elsewhere with the same zeal she seems to bestow on glittering social events and dear friends.

While others learn from books, although she reads widely and avidly, Rosemary seemed to learn the lessons of life from her very distinct experiences over the span of many expatriate years. I am not sure about whether she did much by way of graduate education, yet she was learned in the manner of gifted auto-didacts, and seemed conversant with the best works of modern literature. She likes describe herself as ‘a typist,’ in good moods as ‘a glorified typist,’ who was employed throughout her career by various international institutions, and seemed to have such an advanced and engaging social consciousness as to gain the confidence and affection of her bosses. If a typist, then in a new category—‘a typist savant’ willing to entertain guests with her version of belly dancing.

Somewhat surprisingly, Rosemary grew up in Minnesota, and unsurprisingly, was a college homecoming queen. She somehow emerged in full bloom as a woman alive and alone in Europe, holding a series of jobs in global cities of high culture. Along the way she developed a strong hostility to America’s global role, to Israeli policies and practices, and to any form of organized religion and even to private shows of religious devoutness. Somewhere along this path she encountered and paid a kind of romantic homage, eventually professing love for Paul Findley, a brave ten term congressman from downstate Illinois who paid with his Washington career for taking on the Israeli lobby in the 1980s, and never backed down during the several decades that followed his political defeat. Paul, who I met at a Washington conference on the Jewish Lobby became a lonely voice in what still remains after his death a forlorn wilderness of prophetic insight.

As with the other three, and with the same unforgettable verbal verve, Rosemary is passionate about her opinions, pro and con. With a touch of irony, she holds forth online to her Internet likeminded circle from what she self-mockingly calls ‘my speaker’s corner,’ initially at Marrakesh and now from Angers in southern France. Her affection for Morocco turned sour some time ago, and her views of the country are now of the darkest hue. At present, she feels happier in the city of Angers, filling her days with messages to the world and tales of young Syrian refugees that add spice to her life as she adds direction and maternal devotion to theirs.

Rosemary has developed a retinue of those who love her spirit, and probably like me, overlook the opinionated rants. She is a demagogue of the emotional life, yet according to her own self-portrait, ever ready to laugh uncontrollably at both her own occasional missteps and the absurdities of others. She has soft spot for sympathetic provocateurs and stray cats. What more needs saying!! With such life-sustaining energies, love is rarely absent.

Concluding Observation

A Concluding Remark

Profiling such vivid personalities is somewhat daunting and risky. I discovered along the way that by their nature they transcend all efforts at portraiture. To experience such women as friends is the silver lining of a patriarchal civilization. In their presence I felt always the pressure of being challenged, sometime directly, more often tacitly, and in the end with sentiments of gratitude.

Of course, I realize it is a violation of their individuality to categorize four women whose signature identity is to stand alone far from crowds, avoiding even arenas of societal influence, in some instances seeking maximum attainable remoteness. Despite this penchant for solitude each is socially gifted, and beloved for what she is and has achieved, and by way of appreciation, standard canons of judgment are rightly suspended as inapplicable.

I believe these four women have taught me many lessons outside the confines of classroom, library, and bedroom. Admittedly, it is an unusual pedagogy, especially with respect to what might be identified as ‘moral posture,’ standing tall, or as tall as possible, in relation to ‘political correctness’ or to express empathy toward the most vulnerable and downtrodden while spitting in the direction of their tormentors. And not only are pieties dispensed, but hedonistic insights as well. These women have this great capacity to affirm life in ways that express their distinctiveness, and not only to lament wrongdoing.

I can only wonder why I have known no such men, not even close calls, despite many cherished male friends who were confidants, sharing my love of sports, ideas, games, romance, and the ebb and flow of a long life. Unlike these women who draw to themselves others from great distances, the men I have been close to lack that gravitational pull, at least in my case.  Maybe Edward Said or Gerry Spence are partial exceptions, but their lives are so bound up with others close at hand that I would feel an intruder if I dared to show up at their doorstep on a night of loneliness in search of a reassuring hug!

““

The Shared Struggle of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers

7 Sep

[Posted below is my foreword to a very illuminating collaboration relating the comparative experience of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. The collection of essays has been expertly edited by Norma Hashim & Yousef Aljamal, who have previously edited valuable collections of statements by Palestinian political prisoners, including youth, an important often overlooked dimension of Palestinian resistance. Some endorsements of the book and the expressive cover posted after my foreword. Highly recommended]

A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers   (X/12/2020)

Desperate circumstances give rise to desperate behavior. If by states, extreme violent behavior tends to be rationalized as ‘self-defense,’ ‘military necessity,’ or ‘counterterrorism,’ and governmental claims of legal authorization tend to be upheld by judicial institutions. If even nonviolent acts of resistance by individuals associated with dissident movements occur, then the established order and its supportive media will routinely describe such acts as ‘terrorism,’ ‘criminality,’ ‘political extremism,’ and ‘fanaticism,’ and the behavior is criminalized, or at best exposed to scorn by sovereign states and their civil society establishment. Statist forms of combat almost always rely on violence to crush an enemy, while the desperation of resistance sometimes takes the form of inflicting hurt upon the self so as to shame an oppressor to relent or eventually even surrender, not due to empathy or a change of heart, but because fearful of alienating public opinion, intensifying resistance, losing international legitimacy, facing sanctions. It is against such an overall background that we should understand the role of the hunger strike in the wider context of resistance against all forms of oppressive, exploitative, and cruel governance. The long struggles in Ireland and Palestine are among the most poignant instances of such political encounters that gripped the moral imagination of many persons of conscience in the years since the middle of the prior century.

Those jailed activists who have recourse to a hunger strike, either singly or in collaboration, are keenly aware that they are choosing an option of last resort, which exhibits a willingness to sacrifice their body and even their life itself for goals deemed more important. These goals usually involve either safeguarding dignity and honor of a subjugated people or mobilizing support for a collective struggle on behalf of freedom, rights, and equality. A hunger strike is an ultimate form of non-violence, comparable only to politically motivated acts of self-immolation, physically harmful only to the self, yet possessing in certain circumstances unlimited symbolic potential to change behavior and give rise to massive displays of discontent by a population believed to be successfully suppressed. Such desperate tactics have been integral to the struggles for basic rights and resistance to oppressive conditions in both Palestine and Ireland.

An unacknowledged, yet vital, truth of recent history is that symbolic politics have often eventually controlled the outcomes of prolonged struggles against oppressive state actors that wield dominant control over combat zones and uncontested superiority in relation to weapons and military capabilities. And yet despite these hard power advantages thought decisive in such conflict, the struggle from below persists, often at great cost, yet in the end surprises the world, and sometimes itself, by prevailing. It may be helpful to remember that it was the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon during the 1960s that was considered ‘a scream of the culture’ in defiant reaction to the American led military intervention, which many credited with reversing the course of the conflict. It led Vietnamese scholars to interpret these extreme acts of solitary individuals, endowed with the highest civilizational credentials of moral authority, as shifting the balance of forces in Vietnam in ways that then and there doomed the seemingly irresistible American military resolve to control the political future of Vietnam. These acts of self-immolation didn’t end the war, but to those with insight into Vietnamese culture it did signal an outcome contrary to what the war planners in Washington confidently expected. Tragically before Washington brought itself to acknowledge defeat, the Vietnam war persisted for a decade, ravaging the land and bringing great suffering to the people of Vietnam. Self-immolation, setting oneself on fire as an irreversible instance of self-sacrifice, carries the analogous logic of a hunger strike to a final conclusion. Depending on the actor and context, self-immolation can be interpreted either as an expression of hopeless despair or as a desperate appeal for a just peace.

It was the self-immolation of a simple fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 that called attention to the plight of the Tunisian people, igniting a nationwide uprising that drove a corrupt dictator, Ben Ali, from power. Bouazizi, without political motivation or spiritual authority of the Buddhist monks, sparked populist mobilizations that swept across the Arab world in 2011. Somehow Bouazizi’s entire personal self-immolation was the spark that set the region ablaze. Such a reaction could not have been predicted and was not planned, yet afterwards it was interpreted as somehow activating dormant revolutionary responses to intolerable underlying conditions.

Without doubt, the supreme example of triumphant symbolic politics in modern times was the extraordinary resistance and liberation movement led by Gandhi that merged his individual hunger strikes unto death with spectacular nonviolent forms of collective action (for instance, ‘the salt march’ of 1930), accomplishing what seemed impossible at the time, bringing the British Empire to its knees, and by so doing, restoring independent statehood and sovereignty to colonized India.

Both the oppressed and the oppressors learn from past successes and failures of symbolic politics. The oppressed view such behavior as an ultimate and ennobling approach to resistance and liberation. Oppressors learn that wars are often not decided by who wins on the battlefield or jail house but by the side that gains a decisive advantage symbolically in what I have previously called ‘legitimacy wars.’ With this acquired knowledge of their vulnerability to such tactics, oppressors fight back, defame and use violence to destroy by any means the will of the oppressed, and their global support network, to resist, especially if the stakes involve giving up the high moral and legal ground. The Israeli leadership learned, especially, from the collapse of South African apartheid not to take symbolic politics lightly. Israel has been particularly unscrupulous in its responses to symbolic challenges to its abusive apartheid regime of control. Israel, with U.S. support, has mounted a worldwide defamatory pushback against criticism at the UN or from human rights defenders around the world, shamelessly playing ‘the anti-Semitic card’ in its effort to destroy nonviolent solidarity efforts such as the pro-Palestinian BDS Campaign modeled on an initiative that had mobilized worldwide opposition to South African apartheid. Notably, in the South African case, the BDS tactic was questioned for effectiveness and appropriateness, but its organizers and most militant supporters were never defamed, much less criminalized. This recognition of the potency of symbolic politics by Israel has obstructed the Palestinian liberation struggles despite what would seem to be the advantageous realities of the post-colonial setting.

Israel’s version of an apartheid regime evolved as a necessary side effect of establishing an exclusivist Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society. This Zionist project required that the Palestinian people become experience the agonies of colonialist dispossession and displacement in their own homeland. Israel learned from South Africa techniques of racist hierarchy and repression, but they were also aware of the vulnerabilities of oppressors to sustained forms of non-violence that validated the persevering resistance of those oppressed. Israel is determined not to repeat the collapse of South African apartheid, which explains not only repression of resistors but sustained efforts to achieve the demoralization of supporters that comprise the global solidarity movement, especially those in the West where Israel’s geopolitical backup is situated.

A similar reality existed in Northern Ireland where the memories of colonies lost to weaker adversaries slowly taught the UK lessons of accommodation and compromise, which led the leaders in London to shift abruptly their focus from counterterrorism to diplomacy, with the dramatic climax of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Israel is not the UK, and the Irish are not the Palestinians. Israel shows no willingness to grant the Palestinian people their most basic rights, even withholding COVID vaccines, yet even Israel does not want to be humiliated in ways that can arouse international public opinion to move from the rhetoric of censure toward the imposition of sanctions. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t want Palestinian hunger strikers to die in captivity, not because of their empathy, but to avoid bad publicity. To prevent such outcomes, Israeli prison authorities will often attempt forced feeding, but if that fails, as it usually does, then they will bend the rules, make some concessions, including even arrange a release when it is feared that a hunger striker is at the brink of death. Palestinian prospects are more dependent than ever on waging and winning victories in the domain of symbolic politics, and Israel, with the help of the United States, will go to any length to hide tactical defeats of this sort in this longest of legitimacy wars.

It is against such a background that these writings were collected, with Palestinian and Irish contributions interspersed throughout the volume to underscore the essential similarity of these two epic anti-colonial struggles. What gives A Shared Struggle its authority and persuasive power is the authenticity derived from words of those brave men and women who chose to undertake hunger strikes in situations of desperation and experienced not only their own spirit-enhancing ordeal but the pain of loss of nearby martyred fallen comrades, grieving families, and their common effort to engage the wider struggles for rights and freedom being carried on outside the prison walls. Despite the vast differences in their respective struggles against oppression, the similarities of response created the deepest of bonds, especially of the Irish toward the Palestinians whose oppressive reality was more severe, and has proved more enduring. The inspirational example of the Irish hunger strikers who did not abandon their quest for elemental justice at the doorstep of death was not lost on the Palestinians. At the end of their protest in 1981 the Irish prisoners obtained formal recognition of their political movement. They also were finally granted recognition by the British that Irish resisters deserved to be treated as ‘political prisoners,’ and not common criminals, came after the Good Friday Agreement when they were released from prison, a political amnesty in all but name. The struggle for Irish independence has not let up, continuing in all of Ireland as an unresolved quest.

 Ever since visiting Belfast two years ago I have been struck by how the Irish revolutionaries, despite these vast differences in circumstances and goals, regard their struggle as being reproduced in its essential character by the Palestinian struggle, and have a robust solidarity movement that regards Palestinian freedom as one of the incomplete aspects of their own struggle. The wall murals in the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast exhibited these affinities, recognizing that oppression is not confined within the sovereign space of nations, but is a transnational reality with a boundaryless community of dedicated individuals. Solidarity and opposition express an unarticulated and largely unacknowledged global humanism. While the Palestinian challenge may be more epic in quality and intensity, the Irish struggle was also waged as a matter of life and death, and even more fundamentally, as an insistence that humiliation, indignity, and servitude were unendurable conditions that produced and justified martyrdom.

Among the great differences in these two national narratives that form the background of these separate renderings of the hunger strikes concerns the impacts of the international context, and especially the role of the United States. With regard to Ireland, American public and even elite opinion was strongly supportive of Catholic resistance in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. mediational role was exercised with an impressive spirit of neutrality. With respect to Israel, the U.S. pretends to play a similar role as intermediary or ‘honest broker,’ yet with zero credibility. It should surprise no objective observer that these diplomatic maneuvers associated with a faux peace process produced only frustration and disappointment for the Palestinians, in part, due to Washington’s unabashed and unconditional material and diplomatic partisanship, including siding with Israel even when it flagrantly violates international law or repudiates the UN consensus on the contours of a just peace. Such futile diplomacy allowed Israel to continue building its unlawful settlements for year after year, compromising Palestinian territorial prospects and resulting in not a single adverse consequence for Israel.

The media treatment of the two struggles reinforced this disparity. The Irish hunger strikes were given generally sympathetic prominence in mainstream media outlets, with Bobby Sands’ name and martyrdom known and respected throughout the world. In contrast, outside of Palestinian circles only those most engaged activists in solidarity efforts are even aware that lengthy and life threatening Palestinian hunger strikes have repeatedly occurred in Israeli prisons during the last several decades.

This denial of international coverage to such nonviolent resistance acts helps reinforce Israeli oppression and uphold the Israeli anti-terrorist narrative, and should be viewed as a kind of transnational complicity. Naked power and geopolitical ‘correctness,’ rather than elemental morality is allowed to dominate the discourse. In the background is the bankruptcy of liberal Zionism. For many years, leading liberal journalists, such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times, were counseling the Palestinians that if they gave up violence, and appealed to Israeli conscience by having recourse to nonviolent forms of resistance, their political grievances would be addressed in a responsible manner. Palestinians responsively launched the first intifada in 1987, and soon realized that those meddlesome liberal establishment well- wishers in the West were quickly muted as soon as Israel responded violently, seeking to crush this most impressive nonviolent and spontaneous mobilization of those Palestinians fed up with living under the rigors of prolonged occupation.

Silence about Palestinian hunger strikes reduces the global impact of these expressions of desperation, which makes this publication of additional significance. It exposes readers to a series of separate stories of heroism under intolerable conditions of Irish and Palestinian imprisonment. This collection also offers a corrective to the virtual media blackout in the West that denies coverage to Palestinian resistance including even, as with hunger strikes, when resistance turns away from violence, and expresses a desperate last resort. Again, the contrasting international media binge coverage of the Irish hunger strikes definitely contributed to the liberating Irish diplomatic breakthrough that might otherwise not have occurred, or at least not as soon as it did.

We notice in these stories collected here, that the Irish contributions situate their recourse to hunger strikes protesting prison conditions more explicitly in the wider struggle of the IRA, while Palestinians stories tell more graphically of the agonies of prolonged imprisonment in Israeli prisons. Our attention is drawn to the denial of minimal international standards of treatment, including failures of medical treatment, bad food quality, denial of family visits, inadequate exercise, and sadistic prison responses ranging from force-feeding to tempting hungry strikers by placing tantalizing foods in prison cells. Yet both Irish and Palestinian styles of witnessing emanate from the same source–how to respond to the desperation felt by intolerable abuse in conditions of imprisonment, and yet carry on the wider struggle for freedom and rights that landed them in prison.

In reading these harrowing statements of broken families and broken hearts, we should not be deceived into thinking that we are reading only about events in the past. There are currently about 4,500 Palestinian prisoners, including 350 imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’ provisions copied from the British Mandate colonialist administration of Palestine, under which Palestinian activists and suspects can be jailed indefinitely without any specific charges or even a show of some evidence of wrongdoing.  Many of the individual hunger strikes take this dire step of a hunger strike without an end date to protest against the acute and arbitrary injustices associated with administrative detention, which appears to be a technique used by Israel to demoralize the Palestine people to an extent that makes their resistance seem useless.

Maher Al-Akhras was close to death in an Israeli prison when freed on November 26, 2020, having mounted a hunger strike for an incredible period of 103 days as a specific protest against being held under administrative detention, that is, without any charges of criminality. Hardly anyone outside of Palestine and the Israeli Prison Service knows about his ordeal. Al-Akhras words when teetering on the brink of death encapsulate the common core of these unforgettable shared stories: my hunger strike “is in defense of Palestinian prisoners and of my people who are suffering from the occupation and my victory in the strike is a victory for the prisoners and my Palestinian people.” In other words, although such an extreme act of self-sacrifice, while being intensely individual, is above all an expression of solidarity with others locked within the prison walls but at the same time often the only form of resistance available to an imprisoned political militant. Such a commitment has its concrete demands relating to prison conditions, but it should also be understood as a metaphor encouraging a greater commitment by all of us, wherever situated, to the struggle that needs to be sustained until victory by those on the outside who are daily subjugated to the policies and practices of the oppressor state.

These stories are here to be read, but the publication of such a collection is also a global solidarity initiative supportive of the Palestinian struggle. The suffering and rightlessness of the Palestinian people has gone on far too long. We now know that the UN and traditional diplomacy have failed to achieve a just solution. Given these circumstances, it becomes clear that only the people of the world possess the will and potentially the capabilities, to bring justice to Palestine. It Is an opportunity and responsibility posing a challenge to all of us. We need to find what ways are available to support those brave and dedicated Palestinians who have paid for so long the price of resisting Israeli oppression.

Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers who contributed their stories to this memorable volume deserve the last word here. Mohammed Al-Qeeq says this: “It is not just about my freedom, but rather the freedom of every soul who curses the injustice as I do.” From Mohamad Alian these words: “In our minds the prison became our cemetery.” And from Pat Sheehan this assessment of the hunger strikes: “It was, and remains, one of the most defining and momentous periods in Irish history.” Finally, Hassan Safadi: “The look on the faces of the Zionist officers who wanted me dead, will never leave me, but I stared right back at them.”

Richard Falk

Yalikavak, Turkey

February 24, 2021

Endorsements for

A Shared Struggle

“Colonialism and occupation are the denial of peoples’ right to self-determination and freedom. The Irish and Palestinian people have had long experience of this. In the struggle for liberty international solidarity between oppressed and dispossessed peoples is hugely important. In this joint Palestinian/Irish republican initiative we witness the parallels between heroic struggles for freedom and the commonality of resistance against seemingly overwhelming military might particularly by those imprisoned in the cause of freedom for their homeland.”

Gerry Adams, Ex-political prisoner, former President Sinn Féin

“Because justice is indivisible, the Irish and Palestinian quest for freedom followed the same trajectory of pain and resistance and was met with the same, ever predictable response of colonial oppression and state violence. The prisoners, in both cases, serve as a microcosm of entire collective experiences. Political prisoners are the victims and the freedom fighters, the agitators, the intellectuals, and the leaders of their communities. Their stories stand at the heart of the shared narrative of both nations. This book is a beautiful tribute to the heroic men and women of Palestine and Ireland. It is an essential read for those wishing to understand why servitude is never an option, and why the struggle for freedom is worth all the painful sacrifices.”

Ramzy Baroud, Author of These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

“Hunger strikes are the last desperate weapon for political prisoners denied justice. For many years, there has been solidarity between the Palestinians, South Africans fighting apartheid and the struggle for Irish unity. That mutual support is active now and needed more than ever, as the oppression of the Palestinians becomes ever more brutal. This is an important book, and I’m sure it will be widely read.”

Ken Loach, Award-winning film director

“One of the painful but inevitable repercussions of being colonised is the existence of political prisoners. Incarcerated for daring to fight for freedom and justice, the pain is multiplied when their suffering is completely ignored by the international community. The heroism of Palestinian and Irish political prisoners is no different from that of Nelson Mandela and other fighters against the apartheid regime of South Africa. But while the latter group is adulated and admired by all, Palestinian political prisoners are still considered terrorists by most Western governments, forcing them to resort to hunger strikes to obtain justice and freedom from the yoke of oppression. Norma Hashim and Yousef M. Aljamal’s book is not only unique but also extremely valuable because it helps us to understand their suffering by describing the first-hand experiences of Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers.”

Prof Nazari Ismail, Chairman of BDS Malaysia

“This is a significant book as the richness of the diverse prisoners and cases from Ireland and Palestine help the readers to understand their contribution to the national movement in both countries.”

Ibrahim Natil, Academic and human rights activist

A Shared Struggle is an important contribution to the literature of people from Palestine and Ireland telling their own stories, in their own words. We are reminded in these pages of the immense brutality being visited on the Palestinian people on a daily basis, both physically and psychologically, and how resistance to the occupation takes places in many forms. The Israeli apartheid state is, as some have argued, worse than apartheid South Africa and I hope this book will inspire more people to get involved in international solidarity and join the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).”

Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD

My refusal to take food was not a suicide attempt as it was portrayed by the Israeli occupation media, but rather it was a legitimate defence tool in which I used my body to impose my demands and highlight my case as a political prisoner who has been stripped off his dignity and freedom. Despite my prior knowledge of the risk of going on a hunger strike and that I might lose my life the same as some Irish hunger strikers did, I decided to go on with my hunger strike because every martyr who falls on this path is a light to those who seek freedom. I encourage you to read this book to learn more about the experiences of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. One line on the wall of my cell read “Read until your sight goes away so that your vision strengthens.” This book is an important read.”

Mahmoud Al-SarsakPalestinian footballer and former hunger striker in Israeli jails

“This collection of first person accounts from Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers is compelling – a mix of powerful stories, poems, and photographs. Together these primary documents provide an essential political history that draws on a long tradition of protest with urgent moral force and challenges the criminalisation of those incarcerated for their fierce resistance to colonial violence. Shared struggles, indeed!”

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, author of Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty

“With its harrowing accounts of the bravery and strength of Palestinian and Irish republican hunger strikers, this book will inspire people to support the freedom struggles of oppressed people all over the world and will shine a light on the brutal Israeli apartheid regime. When people are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for a cause they will never be defeated.”

Senator Frances Black, Dublin, Ireland 

You can order your copy from here

[Posted below is my foreword to a very illuminating collaboration relating the comparative experience of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. The collection of essays has been expertly edited by Norma Hashim & Yousef Aljamal, who have previously edited valuable collections of statements by Palestinian political prisoners, including youth, an important often overlooked dimension of Palestinian resistance. Some endorsements of the book and the expressive cover posted after my foreword.]

A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers   (X/12/2020)

Desperate circumstances give rise to desperate behavior. If by states, extreme violent behavior tends to be rationalized as ‘self-defense,’ ‘military necessity,’ or ‘counterterrorism,’ and governmental claims of legal authorization tend to be upheld by judicial institutions. If even nonviolent acts of resistance by individuals associated with dissident movements occur, then the established order and its supportive media will routinely describe such acts as ‘terrorism,’ ‘criminality,’ ‘political extremism,’ and ‘fanaticism,’ and the behavior is criminalized, or at best exposed to scorn by sovereign states and their civil society establishment. Statist forms of combat almost always rely on violence to crush an enemy, while the desperation of resistance sometimes takes the form of inflicting hurt upon the self so as to shame an oppressor to relent or eventually even surrender, not due to empathy or a change of heart, but because fearful of alienating public opinion, intensifying resistance, losing international legitimacy, facing sanctions. It is against such an overall background that we should understand the role of the hunger strike in the wider context of resistance against all forms of oppressive, exploitative, and cruel governance. The long struggles in Ireland and Palestine are among the most poignant instances of such political encounters that gripped the moral imagination of many persons of conscience in the years since the middle of the prior century.

Those jailed activists who have recourse to a hunger strike, either singly or in collaboration, are keenly aware that they are choosing an option of last resort, which exhibits a willingness to sacrifice their body and even their life itself for goals deemed more important. These goals usually involve either safeguarding dignity and honor of a subjugated people or mobilizing support for a collective struggle on behalf of freedom, rights, and equality. A hunger strike is an ultimate form of non-violence, comparable only to politically motivated acts of self-immolation, physically harmful only to the self, yet possessing in certain circumstances unlimited symbolic potential to change behavior and give rise to massive displays of discontent by a population believed to be successfully suppressed. Such desperate tactics have been integral to the struggles for basic rights and resistance to oppressive conditions in both Palestine and Ireland.

An unacknowledged, yet vital, truth of recent history is that symbolic politics have often eventually controlled the outcomes of prolonged struggles against oppressive state actors that wield dominant control over combat zones and uncontested superiority in relation to weapons and military capabilities. And yet despite these hard power advantages thought decisive in such conflict, the struggle from below persists, often at great cost, yet in the end surprises the world, and sometimes itself, by prevailing. It may be helpful to remember that it was the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon during the 1960s that was considered ‘a scream of the culture’ in defiant reaction to the American led military intervention, which many credited with reversing the course of the conflict. It led Vietnamese scholars to interpret these extreme acts of solitary individuals, endowed with the highest civilizational credentials of moral authority, as shifting the balance of forces in Vietnam in ways that then and there doomed the seemingly irresistible American military resolve to control the political future of Vietnam. These acts of self-immolation didn’t end the war, but to those with insight into Vietnamese culture it did signal an outcome contrary to what the war planners in Washington confidently expected. Tragically before Washington brought itself to acknowledge defeat, the Vietnam war persisted for a decade, ravaging the land and bringing great suffering to the people of Vietnam. Self-immolation, setting oneself on fire as an irreversible instance of self-sacrifice, carries the analogous logic of a hunger strike to a final conclusion. Depending on the actor and context, self-immolation can be interpreted either as an expression of hopeless despair or as a desperate appeal for a just peace.

It was the self-immolation of a simple fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 that called attention to the plight of the Tunisian people, igniting a nationwide uprising that drove a corrupt dictator, Ben Ali, from power. Bouazizi, without political motivation or spiritual authority of the Buddhist monks, sparked populist mobilizations that swept across the Arab world in 2011. Somehow Bouazizi’s entire personal self-immolation was the spark that set the region ablaze. Such a reaction could not have been predicted and was not planned, yet afterwards it was interpreted as somehow activating dormant revolutionary responses to intolerable underlying conditions.

Without doubt, the supreme example of triumphant symbolic politics in modern times was the extraordinary resistance and liberation movement led by Gandhi that merged his individual hunger strikes unto death with spectacular nonviolent forms of collective action (for instance, ‘the salt march’ of 1930), accomplishing what seemed impossible at the time, bringing the British Empire to its knees, and by so doing, restoring independent statehood and sovereignty to colonized India.

Both the oppressed and the oppressors learn from past successes and failures of symbolic politics. The oppressed view such behavior as an ultimate and ennobling approach to resistance and liberation. Oppressors learn that wars are often not decided by who wins on the battlefield or jail house but by the side that gains a decisive advantage symbolically in what I have previously called ‘legitimacy wars.’ With this acquired knowledge of their vulnerability to such tactics, oppressors fight back, defame and use violence to destroy by any means the will of the oppressed, and their global support network, to resist, especially if the stakes involve giving up the high moral and legal ground. The Israeli leadership learned, especially, from the collapse of South African apartheid not to take symbolic politics lightly. Israel has been particularly unscrupulous in its responses to symbolic challenges to its abusive apartheid regime of control. Israel, with U.S. support, has mounted a worldwide defamatory pushback against criticism at the UN or from human rights defenders around the world, shamelessly playing ‘the anti-Semitic card’ in its effort to destroy nonviolent solidarity efforts such as the pro-Palestinian BDS Campaign modeled on an initiative that had mobilized worldwide opposition to South African apartheid. Notably, in the South African case, the BDS tactic was questioned for effectiveness and appropriateness, but its organizers and most militant supporters were never defamed, much less criminalized. This recognition of the potency of symbolic politics by Israel has obstructed the Palestinian liberation struggles despite what would seem to be the advantageous realities of the post-colonial setting.

Israel’s version of an apartheid regime evolved as a necessary side effect of establishing an exclusivist Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society. This Zionist project required that the Palestinian people become experience the agonies of colonialist dispossession and displacement in their own homeland. Israel learned from South Africa techniques of racist hierarchy and repression, but they were also aware of the vulnerabilities of oppressors to sustained forms of non-violence that validated the persevering resistance of those oppressed. Israel is determined not to repeat the collapse of South African apartheid, which explains not only repression of resistors but sustained efforts to achieve the demoralization of supporters that comprise the global solidarity movement, especially those in the West where Israel’s geopolitical backup is situated.

A similar reality existed in Northern Ireland where the memories of colonies lost to weaker adversaries slowly taught the UK lessons of accommodation and compromise, which led the leaders in London to shift abruptly their focus from counterterrorism to diplomacy, with the dramatic climax of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Israel is not the UK, and the Irish are not the Palestinians. Israel shows no willingness to grant the Palestinian people their most basic rights, even withholding COVID vaccines, yet even Israel does not want to be humiliated in ways that can arouse international public opinion to move from the rhetoric of censure toward the imposition of sanctions. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t want Palestinian hunger strikers to die in captivity, not because of their empathy, but to avoid bad publicity. To prevent such outcomes, Israeli prison authorities will often attempt forced feeding, but if that fails, as it usually does, then they will bend the rules, make some concessions, including even arrange a release when it is feared that a hunger striker is at the brink of death. Palestinian prospects are more dependent than ever on waging and winning victories in the domain of symbolic politics, and Israel, with the help of the United States, will go to any length to hide tactical defeats of this sort in this longest of legitimacy wars.

It is against such a background that these writings were collected, with Palestinian and Irish contributions interspersed throughout the volume to underscore the essential similarity of these two epic anti-colonial struggles. What gives A Shared Struggle its authority and persuasive power is the authenticity derived from words of those brave men and women who chose to undertake hunger strikes in situations of desperation and experienced not only their own spirit-enhancing ordeal but the pain of loss of nearby martyred fallen comrades, grieving families, and their common effort to engage the wider struggles for rights and freedom being carried on outside the prison walls. Despite the vast differences in their respective struggles against oppression, the similarities of response created the deepest of bonds, especially of the Irish toward the Palestinians whose oppressive reality was more severe, and has proved more enduring. The inspirational example of the Irish hunger strikers who did not abandon their quest for elemental justice at the doorstep of death was not lost on the Palestinians. At the end of their protest in 1981 the Irish prisoners obtained formal recognition of their political movement. They also were finally granted recognition by the British that Irish resisters deserved to be treated as ‘political prisoners,’ and not common criminals, came after the Good Friday Agreement when they were released from prison, a political amnesty in all but name. The struggle for Irish independence has not let up, continuing in all of Ireland as an unresolved quest.

 Ever since visiting Belfast two years ago I have been struck by how the Irish revolutionaries, despite these vast differences in circumstances and goals, regard their struggle as being reproduced in its essential character by the Palestinian struggle, and have a robust solidarity movement that regards Palestinian freedom as one of the incomplete aspects of their own struggle. The wall murals in the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast exhibited these affinities, recognizing that oppression is not confined within the sovereign space of nations, but is a transnational reality with a boundaryless community of dedicated individuals. Solidarity and opposition express an unarticulated and largely unacknowledged global humanism. While the Palestinian challenge may be more epic in quality and intensity, the Irish struggle was also waged as a matter of life and death, and even more fundamentally, as an insistence that humiliation, indignity, and servitude were unendurable conditions that produced and justified martyrdom.

Among the great differences in these two national narratives that form the background of these separate renderings of the hunger strikes concerns the impacts of the international context, and especially the role of the United States. With regard to Ireland, American public and even elite opinion was strongly supportive of Catholic resistance in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. mediational role was exercised with an impressive spirit of neutrality. With respect to Israel, the U.S. pretends to play a similar role as intermediary or ‘honest broker,’ yet with zero credibility. It should surprise no objective observer that these diplomatic maneuvers associated with a faux peace process produced only frustration and disappointment for the Palestinians, in part, due to Washington’s unabashed and unconditional material and diplomatic partisanship, including siding with Israel even when it flagrantly violates international law or repudiates the UN consensus on the contours of a just peace. Such futile diplomacy allowed Israel to continue building its unlawful settlements for year after year, compromising Palestinian territorial prospects and resulting in not a single adverse consequence for Israel.

The media treatment of the two struggles reinforced this disparity. The Irish hunger strikes were given generally sympathetic prominence in mainstream media outlets, with Bobby Sands’ name and martyrdom known and respected throughout the world. In contrast, outside of Palestinian circles only those most engaged activists in solidarity efforts are even aware that lengthy and life threatening Palestinian hunger strikes have repeatedly occurred in Israeli prisons during the last several decades.

This denial of international coverage to such nonviolent resistance acts helps reinforce Israeli oppression and uphold the Israeli anti-terrorist narrative, and should be viewed as a kind of transnational complicity. Naked power and geopolitical ‘correctness,’ rather than elemental morality is allowed to dominate the discourse. In the background is the bankruptcy of liberal Zionism. For many years, leading liberal journalists, such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times, were counseling the Palestinians that if they gave up violence, and appealed to Israeli conscience by having recourse to nonviolent forms of resistance, their political grievances would be addressed in a responsible manner. Palestinians responsively launched the first intifada in 1987, and soon realized that those meddlesome liberal establishment well- wishers in the West were quickly muted as soon as Israel responded violently, seeking to crush this most impressive nonviolent and spontaneous mobilization of those Palestinians fed up with living under the rigors of prolonged occupation.

Silence about Palestinian hunger strikes reduces the global impact of these expressions of desperation, which makes this publication of additional significance. It exposes readers to a series of separate stories of heroism under intolerable conditions of Irish and Palestinian imprisonment. This collection also offers a corrective to the virtual media blackout in the West that denies coverage to Palestinian resistance including even, as with hunger strikes, when resistance turns away from violence, and expresses a desperate last resort. Again, the contrasting international media binge coverage of the Irish hunger strikes definitely contributed to the liberating Irish diplomatic breakthrough that might otherwise not have occurred, or at least not as soon as it did.

We notice in these stories collected here, that the Irish contributions situate their recourse to hunger strikes protesting prison conditions more explicitly in the wider struggle of the IRA, while Palestinians stories tell more graphically of the agonies of prolonged imprisonment in Israeli prisons. Our attention is drawn to the denial of minimal international standards of treatment, including failures of medical treatment, bad food quality, denial of family visits, inadequate exercise, and sadistic prison responses ranging from force-feeding to tempting hungry strikers by placing tantalizing foods in prison cells. Yet both Irish and Palestinian styles of witnessing emanate from the same source–how to respond to the desperation felt by intolerable abuse in conditions of imprisonment, and yet carry on the wider struggle for freedom and rights that landed them in prison.

In reading these harrowing statements of broken families and broken hearts, we should not be deceived into thinking that we are reading only about events in the past. There are currently about 4,500 Palestinian prisoners, including 350 imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’ provisions copied from the British Mandate colonialist administration of Palestine, under which Palestinian activists and suspects can be jailed indefinitely without any specific charges or even a show of some evidence of wrongdoing.  Many of the individual hunger strikes take this dire step of a hunger strike without an end date to protest against the acute and arbitrary injustices associated with administrative detention, which appears to be a technique used by Israel to demoralize the Palestine people to an extent that makes their resistance seem useless.

Maher Al-Akhras was close to death in an Israeli prison when freed on November 26, 2020, having mounted a hunger strike for an incredible period of 103 days as a specific protest against being held under administrative detention, that is, without any charges of criminality. Hardly anyone outside of Palestine and the Israeli Prison Service knows about his ordeal. Al-Akhras words when teetering on the brink of death encapsulate the common core of these unforgettable shared stories: my hunger strike “is in defense of Palestinian prisoners and of my people who are suffering from the occupation and my victory in the strike is a victory for the prisoners and my Palestinian people.” In other words, although such an extreme act of self-sacrifice, while being intensely individual, is above all an expression of solidarity with others locked within the prison walls but at the same time often the only form of resistance available to an imprisoned political militant. Such a commitment has its concrete demands relating to prison conditions, but it should also be understood as a metaphor encouraging a greater commitment by all of us, wherever situated, to the struggle that needs to be sustained until victory by those on the outside who are daily subjugated to the policies and practices of the oppressor state.

These stories are here to be read, but the publication of such a collection is also a global solidarity initiative supportive of the Palestinian struggle. The suffering and rightlessness of the Palestinian people has gone on far too long. We now know that the UN and traditional diplomacy have failed to achieve a just solution. Given these circumstances, it becomes clear that only the people of the world possess the will and potentially the capabilities, to bring justice to Palestine. It Is an opportunity and responsibility posing a challenge to all of us. We need to find what ways are available to support those brave and dedicated Palestinians who have paid for so long the price of resisting Israeli oppression.

Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers who contributed their stories to this memorable volume deserve the last word here. Mohammed Al-Qeeq says this: “It is not just about my freedom, but rather the freedom of every soul who curses the injustice as I do.” From Mohamad Alian these words: “In our minds the prison became our cemetery.” And from Pat Sheehan this assessment of the hunger strikes: “It was, and remains, one of the most defining and momentous periods in Irish history.” Finally, Hassan Safadi: “The look on the faces of the Zionist officers who wanted me dead, will never leave me, but I stared right back at them.”

Richard Falk

Yalikavak, Turkey

February 24, 2021

**********

Endorsements for

A Shared Struggle

“Colonialism and occupation are the denial of peoples’ right to self-determination and freedom. The Irish and Palestinian people have had long experience of this. In the struggle for liberty international solidarity between oppressed and dispossessed peoples is hugely important. In this joint Palestinian/Irish republican initiative we witness the parallels between heroic struggles for freedom and the commonality of resistance against seemingly overwhelming military might particularly by those imprisoned in the cause of freedom for their homeland.”

Gerry Adams, Ex-political prisoner, former President Sinn Féin

“Because justice is indivisible, the Irish and Palestinian quest for freedom followed the same trajectory of pain and resistance and was met with the same, ever predictable response of colonial oppression and state violence. The prisoners, in both cases, serve as a microcosm of entire collective experiences. Political prisoners are the victims and the freedom fighters, the agitators, the intellectuals, and the leaders of their communities. Their stories stand at the heart of the shared narrative of both nations. This book is a beautiful tribute to the heroic men and women of Palestine and Ireland. It is an essential read for those wishing to understand why servitude is never an option, and why the struggle for freedom is worth all the painful sacrifices.”

Ramzy Baroud, Author of These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

“Hunger strikes are the last desperate weapon for political prisoners denied justice. For many years, there has been solidarity between the Palestinians, South Africans fighting apartheid and the struggle for Irish unity. That mutual support is active now and needed more than ever, as the oppression of the Palestinians becomes ever more brutal. This is an important book, and I’m sure it will be widely read.”

Ken Loach, Award-winning film director

“One of the painful but inevitable repercussions of being colonised is the existence of political prisoners. Incarcerated for daring to fight for freedom and justice, the pain is multiplied when their suffering is completely ignored by the international community. The heroism of Palestinian and Irish political prisoners is no different from that of Nelson Mandela and other fighters against the apartheid regime of South Africa. But while the latter group is adulated and admired by all, Palestinian political prisoners are still considered terrorists by most Western governments, forcing them to resort to hunger strikes to obtain justice and freedom from the yoke of oppression. Norma Hashim and Yousef M. Aljamal’s book is not only unique but also extremely valuable because it helps us to understand their suffering by describing the first-hand experiences of Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers.”

Prof Nazari Ismail, Chairman of BDS Malaysia

“This is a significant book as the richness of the diverse prisoners and cases from Ireland and Palestine help the readers to understand their contribution to the national movement in both countries.”

Ibrahim Natil, Academic and human rights activist

A Shared Struggle is an important contribution to the literature of people from Palestine and Ireland telling their own stories, in their own words. We are reminded in these pages of the immense brutality being visited on the Palestinian people on a daily basis, both physically and psychologically, and how resistance to the occupation takes places in many forms. The Israeli apartheid state is, as some have argued, worse than apartheid South Africa and I hope this book will inspire more people to get involved in international solidarity and join the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).”

Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD

My refusal to take food was not a suicide attempt as it was portrayed by the Israeli occupation media, but rather it was a legitimate defence tool in which I used my body to impose my demands and highlight my case as a political prisoner who has been stripped off his dignity and freedom. Despite my prior knowledge of the risk of going on a hunger strike and that I might lose my life the same as some Irish hunger strikers did, I decided to go on with my hunger strike because every martyr who falls on this path is a light to those who seek freedom. I encourage you to read this book to learn more about the experiences of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. One line on the wall of my cell read “Read until your sight goes away so that your vision strengthens.” This book is an important read.”

Mahmoud Al-SarsakPalestinian footballer and former hunger striker in Israeli jails

“This collection of first person accounts from Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers is compelling – a mix of powerful stories, poems, and photographs. Together these primary documents provide an essential political history that draws on a long tradition of protest with urgent moral force and challenges the criminalisation of those incarcerated for their fierce resistance to colonial violence. Shared struggles, indeed!”

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, author of Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty

“With its harrowing accounts of the bravery and strength of Palestinian and Irish republican hunger strikers, this book will inspire people to support the freedom struggles of oppressed people all over the world and will shine a light on the brutal Israeli apartheid regime. When people are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for a cause they will never be defeated.”

Senator Frances Black, Dublin, Ireland 

Strikers   (X/12/2020)

Desperate circumstances give rise to desperate behavior. If by states, extreme violent behavior tends to be rationalized as ‘self-defense,’ ‘military necessity,’ or ‘counterterrorism,’ and governmental claims of legal authorization tend to be upheld by judicial institutions. If even nonviolent acts of resistance by individuals associated with dissident movements occur, then the established order and its supportive media will routinely describe such acts as ‘terrorism,’ ‘criminality,’ ‘political extremism,’ and ‘fanaticism,’ and the behavior is criminalized, or at best exposed to scorn by sovereign states and their civil society establishment. Statist forms of combat almost always rely on violence to crush an enemy, while the desperation of resistance sometimes takes the form of inflicting hurt upon the self so as to shame an oppressor to relent or eventually even surrender, not due to empathy or a change of heart, but because fearful of alienating public opinion, intensifying resistance, losing international legitimacy, facing sanctions. It is against such an overall background that we should understand the role of the hunger strike in the wider context of resistance against all forms of oppressive, exploitative, and cruel governance. The long struggles in Ireland and Palestine are among the most poignant instances of such political encounters that gripped the moral imagination of many persons of conscience in the years since the middle of the prior century.

Those jailed activists who have recourse to a hunger strike, either singly or in collaboration, are keenly aware that they are choosing an option of last resort, which exhibits a willingness to sacrifice their body and even their life itself for goals deemed more important. These goals usually involve either safeguarding dignity and honor of a subjugated people or mobilizing support for a collective struggle on behalf of freedom, rights, and equality. A hunger strike is an ultimate form of non-violence, comparable only to politically motivated acts of self-immolation, physically harmful only to the self, yet possessing in certain circumstances unlimited symbolic potential to change behavior and give rise to massive displays of discontent by a population believed to be successfully suppressed. Such desperate tactics have been integral to the struggles for basic rights and resistance to oppressive conditions in both Palestine and Ireland.

An unacknowledged, yet vital, truth of recent history is that symbolic politics have often eventually controlled the outcomes of prolonged struggles against oppressive state actors that wield dominant control over combat zones and uncontested superiority in relation to weapons and military capabilities. And yet despite these hard power advantages thought decisive in such conflict, the struggle from below persists, often at great cost, yet in the end surprises the world, and sometimes itself, by prevailing. It may be helpful to remember that it was the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon during the 1960s that was considered ‘a scream of the culture’ in defiant reaction to the American led military intervention, which many credited with reversing the course of the conflict. It led Vietnamese scholars to interpret these extreme acts of solitary individuals, endowed with the highest civilizational credentials of moral authority, as shifting the balance of forces in Vietnam in ways that then and there doomed the seemingly irresistible American military resolve to control the political future of Vietnam. These acts of self-immolation didn’t end the war, but to those with insight into Vietnamese culture it did signal an outcome contrary to what the war planners in Washington confidently expected. Tragically before Washington brought itself to acknowledge defeat, the Vietnam war persisted for a decade, ravaging the land and bringing great suffering to the people of Vietnam. Self-immolation, setting oneself on fire as an irreversible instance of self-sacrifice, carries the analogous logic of a hunger strike to a final conclusion. Depending on the actor and context, self-immolation can be interpreted either as an expression of hopeless despair or as a desperate appeal for a just peace.

It was the self-immolation of a simple fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 that called attention to the plight of the Tunisian people, igniting a nationwide uprising that drove a corrupt dictator, Ben Ali, from power. Bouazizi, without political motivation or spiritual authority of the Buddhist monks, sparked populist mobilizations that swept across the Arab world in 2011. Somehow Bouazizi’s entire personal self-immolation was the spark that set the region ablaze. Such a reaction could not have been predicted and was not planned, yet afterwards it was interpreted as somehow activating dormant revolutionary responses to intolerable underlying conditions.

Without doubt, the supreme example of triumphant symbolic politics in modern times was the extraordinary resistance and liberation movement led by Gandhi that merged his individual hunger strikes unto death with spectacular nonviolent forms of collective action (for instance, ‘the salt march’ of 1930), accomplishing what seemed impossible at the time, bringing the British Empire to its knees, and by so doing, restoring independent statehood and sovereignty to colonized India.

Both the oppressed and the oppressors learn from past successes and failures of symbolic politics. The oppressed view such behavior as an ultimate and ennobling approach to resistance and liberation. Oppressors learn that wars are often not decided by who wins on the battlefield or jail house but by the side that gains a decisive advantage symbolically in what I have previously called ‘legitimacy wars.’ With this acquired knowledge of their vulnerability to such tactics, oppressors fight back, defame and use violence to destroy by any means the will of the oppressed, and their global support network, to resist, especially if the stakes involve giving up the high moral and legal ground. The Israeli leadership learned, especially, from the collapse of South African apartheid not to take symbolic politics lightly. Israel has been particularly unscrupulous in its responses to symbolic challenges to its abusive apartheid regime of control. Israel, with U.S. support, has mounted a worldwide defamatory pushback against criticism at the UN or from human rights defenders around the world, shamelessly playing ‘the anti-Semitic card’ in its effort to destroy nonviolent solidarity efforts such as the pro-Palestinian BDS Campaign modeled on an initiative that had mobilized worldwide opposition to South African apartheid. Notably, in the South African case, the BDS tactic was questioned for effectiveness and appropriateness, but its organizers and most militant supporters were never defamed, much less criminalized. This recognition of the potency of symbolic politics by Israel has obstructed the Palestinian liberation struggles despite what would seem to be the advantageous realities of the post-colonial setting.

Israel’s version of an apartheid regime evolved as a necessary side effect of establishing an exclusivist Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society. This Zionist project required that the Palestinian people become experience the agonies of colonialist dispossession and displacement in their own homeland. Israel learned from South Africa techniques of racist hierarchy and repression, but they were also aware of the vulnerabilities of oppressors to sustained forms of non-violence that validated the persevering resistance of those oppressed. Israel is determined not to repeat the collapse of South African apartheid, which explains not only repression of resistors but sustained efforts to achieve the demoralization of supporters that comprise the global solidarity movement, especially those in the West where Israel’s geopolitical backup is situated.

A similar reality existed in Northern Ireland where the memories of colonies lost to weaker adversaries slowly taught the UK lessons of accommodation and compromise, which led the leaders in London to shift abruptly their focus from counterterrorism to diplomacy, with the dramatic climax of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Israel is not the UK, and the Irish are not the Palestinians. Israel shows no willingness to grant the Palestinian people their most basic rights, even withholding COVID vaccines, yet even Israel does not want to be humiliated in ways that can arouse international public opinion to move from the rhetoric of censure toward the imposition of sanctions. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t want Palestinian hunger strikers to die in captivity, not because of their empathy, but to avoid bad publicity. To prevent such outcomes, Israeli prison authorities will often attempt forced feeding, but if that fails, as it usually does, then they will bend the rules, make some concessions, including even arrange a release when it is feared that a hunger striker is at the brink of death. Palestinian prospects are more dependent than ever on waging and winning victories in the domain of symbolic politics, and Israel, with the help of the United States, will go to any length to hide tactical defeats of this sort in this longest of legitimacy wars.

It is against such a background that these writings were collected, with Palestinian and Irish contributions interspersed throughout the volume to underscore the essential similarity of these two epic anti-colonial struggles. What gives A Shared Struggle its authority and persuasive power is the authenticity derived from words of those brave men and women who chose to undertake hunger strikes in situations of desperation and experienced not only their own spirit-enhancing ordeal but the pain of loss of nearby martyred fallen comrades, grieving families, and their common effort to engage the wider struggles for rights and freedom being carried on outside the prison walls. Despite the vast differences in their respective struggles against oppression, the similarities of response created the deepest of bonds, especially of the Irish toward the Palestinians whose oppressive reality was more severe, and has proved more enduring. The inspirational example of the Irish hunger strikers who did not abandon their quest for elemental justice at the doorstep of death was not lost on the Palestinians. At the end of their protest in 1981 the Irish prisoners obtained formal recognition of their political movement. They also were finally granted recognition by the British that Irish resisters deserved to be treated as ‘political prisoners,’ and not common criminals, came after the Good Friday Agreement when they were released from prison, a political amnesty in all but name. The struggle for Irish independence has not let up, continuing in all of Ireland as an unresolved quest.

 Ever since visiting Belfast two years ago I have been struck by how the Irish revolutionaries, despite these vast differences in circumstances and goals, regard their struggle as being reproduced in its essential character by the Palestinian struggle, and have a robust solidarity movement that regards Palestinian freedom as one of the incomplete aspects of their own struggle. The wall murals in the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast exhibited these affinities, recognizing that oppression is not confined within the sovereign space of nations, but is a transnational reality with a boundaryless community of dedicated individuals. Solidarity and opposition express an unarticulated and largely unacknowledged global humanism. While the Palestinian challenge may be more epic in quality and intensity, the Irish struggle was also waged as a matter of life and death, and even more fundamentally, as an insistence that humiliation, indignity, and servitude were unendurable conditions that produced and justified martyrdom.

Among the great differences in these two national narratives that form the background of these separate renderings of the hunger strikes concerns the impacts of the international context, and especially the role of the United States. With regard to Ireland, American public and even elite opinion was strongly supportive of Catholic resistance in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. mediational role was exercised with an impressive spirit of neutrality. With respect to Israel, the U.S. pretends to play a similar role as intermediary or ‘honest broker,’ yet with zero credibility. It should surprise no objective observer that these diplomatic maneuvers associated with a faux peace process produced only frustration and disappointment for the Palestinians, in part, due to Washington’s unabashed and unconditional material and diplomatic partisanship, including siding with Israel even when it flagrantly violates international law or repudiates the UN consensus on the contours of a just peace. Such futile diplomacy allowed Israel to continue building its unlawful settlements for year after year, compromising Palestinian territorial prospects and resulting in not a single adverse consequence for Israel.

The media treatment of the two struggles reinforced this disparity. The Irish hunger strikes were given generally sympathetic prominence in mainstream media outlets, with Bobby Sands’ name and martyrdom known and respected throughout the world. In contrast, outside of Palestinian circles only those most engaged activists in solidarity efforts are even aware that lengthy and life threatening Palestinian hunger strikes have repeatedly occurred in Israeli prisons during the last several decades.

This denial of international coverage to such nonviolent resistance acts helps reinforce Israeli oppression and uphold the Israeli anti-terrorist narrative, and should be viewed as a kind of transnational complicity. Naked power and geopolitical ‘correctness,’ rather than elemental morality is allowed to dominate the discourse. In the background is the bankruptcy of liberal Zionism. For many years, leading liberal journalists, such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times, were counseling the Palestinians that if they gave up violence, and appealed to Israeli conscience by having recourse to nonviolent forms of resistance, their political grievances would be addressed in a responsible manner. Palestinians responsively launched the first intifada in 1987, and soon realized that those meddlesome liberal establishment well- wishers in the West were quickly muted as soon as Israel responded violently, seeking to crush this most impressive nonviolent and spontaneous mobilization of those Palestinians fed up with living under the rigors of prolonged occupation.

Silence about Palestinian hunger strikes reduces the global impact of these expressions of desperation, which makes this publication of additional significance. It exposes readers to a series of separate stories of heroism under intolerable conditions of Irish and Palestinian imprisonment. This collection also offers a corrective to the virtual media blackout in the West that denies coverage to Palestinian resistance including even, as with hunger strikes, when resistance turns away from violence, and expresses a desperate last resort. Again, the contrasting international media binge coverage of the Irish hunger strikes definitely contributed to the liberating Irish diplomatic breakthrough that might otherwise not have occurred, or at least not as soon as it did.

We notice in these stories collected here, that the Irish contributions situate their recourse to hunger strikes protesting prison conditions more explicitly in the wider struggle of the IRA, while Palestinians stories tell more graphically of the agonies of prolonged imprisonment in Israeli prisons. Our attention is drawn to the denial of minimal international standards of treatment, including failures of medical treatment, bad food quality, denial of family visits, inadequate exercise, and sadistic prison responses ranging from force-feeding to tempting hungry strikers by placing tantalizing foods in prison cells. Yet both Irish and Palestinian styles of witnessing emanate from the same source–how to respond to the desperation felt by intolerable abuse in conditions of imprisonment, and yet carry on the wider struggle for freedom and rights that landed them in prison.

In reading these harrowing statements of broken families and broken hearts, we should not be deceived into thinking that we are reading only about events in the past. There are currently about 4,500 Palestinian prisoners, including 350 imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’ provisions copied from the British Mandate colonialist administration of Palestine, under which Palestinian activists and suspects can be jailed indefinitely without any specific charges or even a show of some evidence of wrongdoing.  Many of the individual hunger strikes take this dire step of a hunger strike without an end date to protest against the acute and arbitrary injustices associated with administrative detention, which appears to be a technique used by Israel to demoralize the Palestine people to an extent that makes their resistance seem useless.

Maher Al-Akhras was close to death in an Israeli prison when freed on November 26, 2020, having mounted a hunger strike for an incredible period of 103 days as a specific protest against being held under administrative detention, that is, without any charges of criminality. Hardly anyone outside of Palestine and the Israeli Prison Service knows about his ordeal. Al-Akhras words when teetering on the brink of death encapsulate the common core of these unforgettable shared stories: my hunger strike “is in defense of Palestinian prisoners and of my people who are suffering from the occupation and my victory in the strike is a victory for the prisoners and my Palestinian people.” In other words, although such an extreme act of self-sacrifice, while being intensely individual, is above all an expression of solidarity with others locked within the prison walls but at the same time often the only form of resistance available to an imprisoned political militant. Such a commitment has its concrete demands relating to prison conditions, but it should also be understood as a metaphor encouraging a greater commitment by all of us, wherever situated, to the struggle that needs to be sustained until victory by those on the outside who are daily subjugated to the policies and practices of the oppressor state.

These stories are here to be read, but the publication of such a collection is also a global solidarity initiative supportive of the Palestinian struggle. The suffering and rightlessness of the Palestinian people has gone on far too long. We now know that the UN and traditional diplomacy have failed to achieve a just solution. Given these circumstances, it becomes clear that only the people of the world possess the will and potentially the capabilities, to bring justice to Palestine. It Is an opportunity and responsibility posing a challenge to all of us. We need to find what ways are available to support those brave and dedicated Palestinians who have paid for so long the price of resisting Israeli oppression.

Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers who contributed their stories to this memorable volume deserve the last word here. Mohammed Al-Qeeq says this: “It is not just about my freedom, but rather the freedom of every soul who curses the injustice as I do.” From Mohamad Alian these words: “In our minds the prison became our cemetery.” And from Pat Sheehan this assessment of the hunger strikes: “It was, and remains, one of the most defining and momentous periods in Irish history.” Finally, Hassan Safadi: “The look on the faces of the Zionist officers who wanted me dead, will never leave me, but I stared right back at them.”

Richard Falk

Yalikavak, Turkey

February 24, 2021

Endorsements for

A Shared Struggle

“Colonialism and occupation are the denial of peoples’ right to self-determination and freedom. The Irish and Palestinian people have had long experience of this. In the struggle for liberty international solidarity between oppressed and dispossessed peoples is hugely important. In this joint Palestinian/Irish republican initiative we witness the parallels between heroic struggles for freedom and the commonality of resistance against seemingly overwhelming military might particularly by those imprisoned in the cause of freedom for their homeland.”

Gerry Adams, Ex-political prisoner, former President Sinn Féin

“Because justice is indivisible, the Irish and Palestinian quest for freedom followed the same trajectory of pain and resistance and was met with the same, ever predictable response of colonial oppression and state violence. The prisoners, in both cases, serve as a microcosm of entire collective experiences. Political prisoners are the victims and the freedom fighters, the agitators, the intellectuals, and the leaders of their communities. Their stories stand at the heart of the shared narrative of both nations. This book is a beautiful tribute to the heroic men and women of Palestine and Ireland. It is an essential read for those wishing to understand why servitude is never an option, and why the struggle for freedom is worth all the painful sacrifices.”

Ramzy Baroud, Author of These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

“Hunger strikes are the last desperate weapon for political prisoners denied justice. For many years, there has been solidarity between the Palestinians, South Africans fighting apartheid and the struggle for Irish unity. That mutual support is active now and needed more than ever, as the oppression of the Palestinians becomes ever more brutal. This is an important book, and I’m sure it will be widely read.”

Ken Loach, Award-winning film director

“One of the painful but inevitable repercussions of being colonised is the existence of political prisoners. Incarcerated for daring to fight for freedom and justice, the pain is multiplied when their suffering is completely ignored by the international community. The heroism of Palestinian and Irish political prisoners is no different from that of Nelson Mandela and other fighters against the apartheid regime of South Africa. But while the latter group is adulated and admired by all, Palestinian political prisoners are still considered terrorists by most Western governments, forcing them to resort to hunger strikes to obtain justice and freedom from the yoke of oppression. Norma Hashim and Yousef M. Aljamal’s book is not only unique but also extremely valuable because it helps us to understand their suffering by describing the first-hand experiences of Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers.”

Prof Nazari Ismail, Chairman of BDS Malaysia

“This is a significant book as the richness of the diverse prisoners and cases from Ireland and Palestine help the readers to understand their contribution to the national movement in both countries.”

Ibrahim Natil, Academic and human rights activist

A Shared Struggle is an important contribution to the literature of people from Palestine and Ireland telling their own stories, in their own words. We are reminded in these pages of the immense brutality being visited on the Palestinian people on a daily basis, both physically and psychologically, and how resistance to the occupation takes places in many forms. The Israeli apartheid state is, as some have argued, worse than apartheid South Africa and I hope this book will inspire more people to get involved in international solidarity and join the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).”

Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD

My refusal to take food was not a suicide attempt as it was portrayed by the Israeli occupation media, but rather it was a legitimate defence tool in which I used my body to impose my demands and highlight my case as a political prisoner who has been stripped off his dignity and freedom. Despite my prior knowledge of the risk of going on a hunger strike and that I might lose my life the same as some Irish hunger strikers did, I decided to go on with my hunger strike because every martyr who falls on this path is a light to those who seek freedom. I encourage you to read this book to learn more about the experiences of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. One line on the wall of my cell read “Read until your sight goes away so that your vision strengthens.” This book is an important read.”

Mahmoud Al-SarsakPalestinian footballer and former hunger striker in Israeli jails

“This collection of first person accounts from Irish and Palestinian hunger strikers is compelling – a mix of powerful stories, poems, and photographs. Together these primary documents provide an essential political history that draws on a long tradition of protest with urgent moral force and challenges the criminalisation of those incarcerated for their fierce resistance to colonial violence. Shared struggles, indeed!”

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, author of Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty

“With its harrowing accounts of the bravery and strength of Palestinian and Irish republican hunger strikers, this book will inspire people to support the freedom struggles of oppressed people all over the world and will shine a light on the brutal Israeli apartheid regime. When people are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for a cause they will never be defeated.”

Senator Frances Black, Dublin, Ireland 

TO OBTAIN A COPY GO TO: <htpp://thelarkstore,ie/collection/books/product/a-shared-struggle>

Crime and Punishment in Afghanistan

29 Aug

Atrocity in Kabul, Geopolitical Crime in Washington

Exploding a suicide bomb on Afghan civilians fleeing for their lives at the Kabul International Airport on August 26, 2021 was a terrorist crime of the greatest magnitude and a gross expression of political sociopathology by the perpetrators, Islamic State-Khorosan or ISIS-k. Those responsible for such deliberative mayhem should be held accountable in accordance with law to the extent feasible.

Yet for President Biden to rely on virtually the same vengeful trope employed by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks represents a dehumanizing demoralizing descent into the domain of primitive vengeance. These are Biden’ words predictably highlighted by the media, uttered with contempt: “Know this: we will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” And Biden made sure there would be no misunderstanding by adding the imperial reassurance of being law unto oneself: “We will respond with force and precision, at the place we choose and at the moment of our choosing.” Not a word about the relevance of law and justice, much less the kind of phrasing the U.S. Government would expect, and demand, if the target of such violence occurred within Russia or China—‘within the parameters of international law.’ At least, Biden didn’t follow Bush down the dark corridor of declaring a second ‘war on terror,’ limiting his pledge to the presumed attackers, in the spirit of what seems like an international variant of ‘vigilante justice,’ the first phase of which was a drone attack against ISIS-k personnel allegedly connected with the airport atrocity. 

A parallel theme in Biden’s post-attack remarks glamorized the mission of the departing American military, which had the effect of covering up the inexplicably abrupt collapse of a prolonged state-building undertaking by the United States. True, the American soldiers who were killed or wounded were tragic victims of terrorism on the last days of service in Afghanistan, but to call professional soldiers carrying out chaotic evacuation orders ‘heroes’ is to divert attention from those who devised such a disastrous mission, which refers to the whole 20 years of expensive, bloody, destructive futility that leave the country in a shambles with bleak future prospects. Not a word of lamentation or acknowledgement of this colossal failure, which involved no meaningful course correction after the high-profile commitment was made two decades. From the counterterror operation that ended with the killing or dispersing of the al-Qaeda operative the American presence was enlarged without debate or authorization to one of regime change followed by state-building and ‘democracy promotion,’ but disguised as ‘reconstruction’ of the state post-Taliban defeat.

Yet Afghanistan is far from the first state-building collapse that the U.S. has sponsored for years before negotiating a humiliating exit that was sugar-coated to blur the strategic disaster, which also hid the responsibility of no less than four presidential administration of putting young Americans in harm’s way for no justifiable purpose. Worse than the specific failure in Afghanistan is the systemic inability to acknowledge and at least make a long overdue effort to learn finally that military superiority is not enough to overcome determined national resistance. Having experienced costly failures in Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, elsewhere and yet refusing to grasp the non-viability of Western military intervention and imposed state-building blueprints in the post-colonial world is not only a major explanation of American imperial decline. It is also a guaranteed recipe for the continued adherence to a dangerously obsolete and nihilistic version of geopolitics, which lacks the agency of the colonial era to transform in a stable and self-serving manner what it conquers. Such post-colonial undertakings more destructively than ever carry out the work of demolition, leaving behind a lengthy trail of death and destruction when the intervenors finally decide to go home, pulling out its personnel, equipment, and some of its collaborating natives who made themselves politically vulnerable to the ‘rough justice’ of the nationalist movements they are seen to have betrayed. Of course, among those that are desperate to leave, are those many Afghans fearful of the future of their impoverished country for diverse reasons, including famine and deep poverty, economic refugees that deserve as much empathy as those who for opportunistic or ideological reasons sided with the American project. 

The Domestic Roots of Geopolitical Obsession  

H.L.Mencken, the American humorist of a century ago, perceptively observely that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” It is a signature failure of democracy in the United States that the most respected media platforms continue to be dominated by the stale views of retired generals and admirals, high-level intelligence officials, and Beltway think tank servants of the political class in America, while the dissident voices of genuine critics are kept from the citizenry, consigned to the wilderness of obscure internet venues. Yes, there is a public level of civic illiteracy subsumed beneath the self-blinding cult of ‘American exceptionalism’ that seems incurably so addicted to national innocence and accompanying virtues as to be unable to interpret and act in accord with obvious precepts of national interest. Our leaders tell us constantly ‘we are better than this’ or Americans can do anything if united and determined while inculcating our worst tendencies. 

President Biden presents himself as “a student of history” who declared that he knew of “no conflict..where when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country could get out.” Instead of ‘ending’ Biden should have said ‘lost,’ and referred to those Afghan allies trapped within as having made a losing gamble, and hence were desperate to be ‘extracted,’ a mechanistic formulation that crept its way into the president’s text. Had Biden chosen the more accurate word, ‘rescued,’ it might have signaled the start of the long journey on a rightful path of remorse, responsibility, and accountability. Unlike the intervening imperial forces, those among the Afghan people that were coopted, corrupted, or induced to collaborate, not only put their life in jeopardy but often endanger the wellbeing of their entire families.

The real story of why this state-building failure was hidden from view for so long, and why it was undertaken in the first place, has yet to be revealed to or understood by the American public. The United States, having been on a war footing ever since 1940 has effectively militarized the international dimensions of the American global state, impoverished the political and moral imagination of the political class shaping foreign policy, and put the American ship of state on a collision course with history, as well as sacrificing such vital national goals as domestic wellbeing and ecological sustainability. The outcome in Afghanistan more than other similar foreign policy failures, has exposed the underbelly of militarized capitalism—special interests, private sector paramilitary operations of for-profit organizations promote war-making for mercenaries, arms sales, well-funded NGOs engaged in a variety of humanitarian tasks helpful to ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the resident population. Such a web of activities and goals underpin and sustain these ‘benevolent’ interventions enabling the delusional security paradigm based on ‘political realism’ to postpone as long as possible the whiplash of ‘political reality.’ Whoever cries ‘fire’ is sidelined as ‘leftist’ or ‘socialist,’ effectively silenced, while the two political parties squabble bitterly over who is to be blamed for ‘the last act,’ conservatives complaining about the lack of ‘strategic patience’ while mainstream liberals talk about the misfortune of a well-intentioned undertaking gone awry that had been made for the benefit of others and to promote more humane and stable national, regional, and global conditions.

Controlling the Discourse

Yet the post-conflict discourse of the political class is once again being shaped by those that insist on ‘looking forward,’ and certainly not lamenting what has collapsed, and why. This means above all refusing to analyze why trillions invested in training and equipping Afghan military and police forces, and creating a national governance structure, which could not and would not prevent the virtually bloodless takeover in a few weeks by the ragtag, poorly equipped Taliban. We should remember that when the Soviet were forced to withdraw by the American funded and CIA organized mujhadeen resistance, it took three years of fighting to dislodge the ‘puppet government’ they left behind in 1989. In contrast, as soon as the Americans signaled their acceptance of defeat, negotiating a nonviolent departure in February 2020 during the last year of Trump’s presidency in Doha, the Taliban “began gaining ground. It was a campaign of persistence, with the Taliban betting that the US would lose patience and leave, and they were right.” [NYTimes, Aug 27, 2021] 

There was also many establishment expressions of dismay that the U.S. Government had relied on the Taliban to provide for airport security during the evacuation process, and skeptical dismissal of their pledges to govern differently the second time around, including a more inclusive approach to  the multi-ethnic makeup of country with respect to governance, along with their promise of better treatment of women and improved relations with the outside world. The United States has expediently trusted the Taliban at the airport and received positive reports from the American military commanders on the scene, but its political leaders and influential media platforms continue to express hostile and skeptical views of the Taliban expressions of their reformed political identity, refusing to let the Taliban escape from the terrorist box that has confined them over the past 20+ years. As with Hamas, it seems preferable from the Western viewpoint of its broader political agenda to refuse to accept, much less encourage, or even explore the genuineness of such a professed commitment of Taliban to a changed identity. The result as with Hamas is to create such pressure on the politically victorious group that indeed they are faced with the choice of surrender or terrorist forms of resistance. 

If indeed Afghanistan is abruptly denied foreign economic assistance formerly supplied by the intervening coalition, then it will erase the US/NATO failure, and few tears will be shed in Washington as it notes the humanitarian catastrophe that ensues in the country. In this sense, Vietnam was fortunate in that it had China as an adversary, which meant that their nationalist victory could be somewhat acknowledged and subsequent economic development permitted. If the Biden presidency was not preoccupied by its covering over the humiliating record of geopolitical failure in Afghanistan and had some real empathy for the Afghan people it would give every benefit of doubt and encouragement to the Taliban at this stage, including massive economic relief, hoping for the best, and at least trying to make it happen.

Concluding Laments

There are deeper questions raised by the latest phase of the Afghan nightmare that haunt the future of the United States:

–Why can’t the American political class learn from China that the 21st century path to prosperity, security, and reputation is primarily based on adhering to these policies?–efficient state/society relations, especially with regard to private savings and public investments, respect for the sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination of other states, and fulfilling geopolitical ambitions beyond national borders by win/win infrastructure contributions to the development of other countries;

–When will the political class in America have the elusive blend of self-confidence and humility to understand why the United States has become the enemy and preferred target of acutely discontented people and their political movements around the world, and make appropriate adjustments, including giving up its worldwide network of military bases and naval commands? Security in the future depends on cooperative networks of global solidarity and not on innovations in military technology that turn the world into a single battlefield in a global forever war. 

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AFGHANISTAN

Atrocity in Kabul, Geopolitical Crime in Washington

Exploding a suicide bomb on Afghan civilians fleeing for their lives at the Kabul International Airport on August 26, 2021 was a terrorist crime of the greatest magnitude and a gross expression of political sociopathology by the perpetrators, Islamic State-Khorosan or ISIS-k. Those responsible for such deliberative mayhem should be held accountable in accordance with law to the extent feasible.

Yet for President Biden to rely on virtually the same vengeful trope employed by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks represents a dehumanizing demoralizing descent into the domain of primitive vengeance. These are Biden’ words predictably highlighted by the media, uttered with contempt: “Know this: we will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” And Biden made sure there would be no misunderstanding by adding the imperial reassurance of being law unto oneself: “We will respond with force and precision, at the place we choose and at the moment of our choosing.” Not a word about the relevance of law and justice, much less the kind of phrasing the U.S. Government would expect, and demand, if the target of such violence occurred within Russia or China—‘within the parameters of international law.’ At least, Biden didn’t follow Bush down the dark corridor of declaring a second ‘war on terror,’ limiting his pledge to the presumed attackers, in the spirit of what seems like an international variant of ‘vigilante justice,’ the first phase of which was a drone attack against ISIS-k personnel allegedly connected with the airport atrocity. 

A parallel theme in Biden’s post-attack remarks glamorized the mission of the departing American military, which had the effect of covering up the inexplicably abrupt collapse of a prolonged state-building undertaking by the United States. True, the American soldiers who were killed or wounded were tragic victims of terrorism on the last days of service in Afghanistan, but to call professional soldiers carrying out chaotic evacuation orders ‘heroes’ is to divert attention from those who devised such a disastrous mission, which refers to the whole 20 years of expensive, bloody, destructive futility that leave the country in a shambles with bleak future prospects. Not a word of lamentation or acknowledgement of this colossal failure, which involved no meaningful course correction after the high-profile commitment was made two decades. From the counterterror operation that ended with the killing or dispersing of the al-Qaeda operative the American presence was enlarged without debate or authorization to one of regime change followed by state-building and ‘democracy promotion,’ but disguised as ‘reconstruction’ of the state post-Taliban defeat.

Yet Afghanistan is far from the first state-building collapse that the U.S. has sponsored for years before negotiating a humiliating exit that was sugar-coated to blur the strategic disaster, which also hid the responsibility of no less than four presidential administration of putting young Americans in harm’s way for no justifiable purpose. Worse than the specific failure in Afghanistan is the systemic inability to acknowledge and at least make a long overdue effort to learn finally that military superiority is not enough to overcome determined national resistance. Having experienced costly failures in Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, elsewhere and yet refusing to grasp the non-viability of Western military intervention and imposed state-building blueprints in the post-colonial world is not only a major explanation of American imperial decline. It is also a guaranteed recipe for the continued adherence to a dangerously obsolete and nihilistic version of geopolitics, which lacks the agency of the colonial era to transform in a stable and self-serving manner what it conquers. Such post-colonial undertakings more destructively than ever carry out the work of demolition, leaving behind a lengthy trail of death and destruction when the intervenors finally decide to go home, pulling out its personnel, equipment, and some of its collaborating natives who made themselves politically vulnerable to the ‘rough justice’ of the nationalist movements they are seen to have betrayed. Of course, among those that are desperate to leave, are those many Afghans fearful of the future of their impoverished country for diverse reasons, including famine and deep poverty, economic refugees that deserve as much empathy as those who for opportunistic or ideological reasons sided with the American project. 

The Domestic Roots of Geopolitical Obsession  

H.L.Mencken, the American humorist of a century ago, perceptively observely that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” It is a signature failure of democracy in the United States that the most respected media platforms continue to be dominated by the stale views of retired generals and admirals, high-level intelligence officials, and Beltway think tank servants of the political class in America, while the dissident voices of genuine critics are kept from the citizenry, consigned to the wilderness of obscure internet venues. Yes, there is a public level of civic illiteracy subsumed beneath the self-blinding cult of ‘American exceptionalism’ that seems incurably so addicted to national innocence and accompanying virtues as to be unable to interpret and act in accord with obvious precepts of national interest. Our leaders tell us constantly ‘we are better than this’ or Americans can do anything if united and determined while inculcating our worst tendencies. 

President Biden presents himself as “a student of history” who declared that he knew of “no conflict..where when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country could get out.” Instead of ‘ending’ Biden should have said ‘lost,’ and referred to those Afghan allies trapped within as having made a losing gamble, and hence were desperate to be ‘extracted,’ a mechanistic formulation that crept its way into the president’s text. Had Biden chosen the more accurate word, ‘rescued,’ it might have signaled the start of the long journey on a rightful path of remorse, responsibility, and accountability. Unlike the intervening imperial forces, those among the Afghan people that were coopted, corrupted, or induced to collaborate, not only put their life in jeopardy but often endanger the wellbeing of their entire families.

The real story of why this state-building failure was hidden from view for so long, and why it was undertaken in the first place, has yet to be revealed to or understood by the American public. The United States, having been on a war footing ever since 1940 has effectively militarized the international dimensions of the American global state, impoverished the political and moral imagination of the political class shaping foreign policy, and put the American ship of state on a collision course with history, as well as sacrificing such vital national goals as domestic wellbeing and ecological sustainability. The outcome in Afghanistan more than other similar foreign policy failures, has exposed the underbelly of militarized capitalism—special interests, private sector paramilitary operations of for-profit organizations promote war-making for mercenaries, arms sales, well-funded NGOs engaged in a variety of humanitarian tasks helpful to ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the resident population. Such a web of activities and goals underpin and sustain these ‘benevolent’ interventions enabling the delusional security paradigm based on ‘political realism’ to postpone as long as possible the whiplash of ‘political reality.’ Whoever cries ‘fire’ is sidelined as ‘leftist’ or ‘socialist,’ effectively silenced, while the two political parties squabble bitterly over who is to be blamed for ‘the last act,’ conservatives complaining about the lack of ‘strategic patience’ while mainstream liberals talk about the misfortune of a well-intentioned undertaking gone awry that had been made for the benefit of others and to promote more humane and stable national, regional, and global conditions.

Controlling the Discourse

Yet the post-conflict discourse of the political class is once again being shaped by those that insist on ‘looking forward,’ and certainly not lamenting what has collapsed, and why. This means above all refusing to analyze why trillions invested in training and equipping Afghan military and police forces, and creating a national governance structure, which could not and would not prevent the virtually bloodless takeover in a few weeks by the ragtag, poorly equipped Taliban. We should remember that when the Soviet were forced to withdraw by the American funded and CIA organized mujhadeen resistance, it took three years of fighting to dislodge the ‘puppet government’ they left behind in 1989. In contrast, as soon as the Americans signaled their acceptance of defeat, negotiating a nonviolent departure in February 2020 during the last year of Trump’s presidency in Doha, the Taliban “began gaining ground. It was a campaign of persistence, with the Taliban betting that the US would lose patience and leave, and they were right.” [NYTimes, Aug 27, 2021] 

There was also many establishment expressions of dismay that the U.S. Government had relied on the Taliban to provide for airport security during the evacuation process, and skeptical dismissal of their pledges to govern differently the second time around, including a more inclusive approach to  the multi-ethnic makeup of country with respect to governance, along with their promise of better treatment of women and improved relations with the outside world. The United States has expediently trusted the Taliban at the airport and received positive reports from the American military commanders on the scene, but its political leaders and influential media platforms continue to express hostile and skeptical views of the Taliban expressions of their reformed political identity, refusing to let the Taliban escape from the terrorist box that has confined them over the past 20+ years. As with Hamas, it seems preferable from the Western viewpoint of its broader political agenda to refuse to accept, much less encourage, or even explore the genuineness of such a professed commitment of Taliban to a changed identity. The result as with Hamas is to create such pressure on the politically victorious group that indeed they are faced with the choice of surrender or terrorist forms of resistance. 

If indeed Afghanistan is abruptly denied foreign economic assistance formerly supplied by the intervening coalition, then it will erase the US/NATO failure, and few tears will be shed in Washington as it notes the humanitarian catastrophe that ensues in the country. In this sense, Vietnam was fortunate in that it had China as an adversary, which meant that their nationalist victory could be somewhat acknowledged and subsequent economic development permitted. If the Biden presidency was not preoccupied by its covering over the humiliating record of geopolitical failure in Afghanistan and had some real empathy for the Afghan people it would give every benefit of doubt and encouragement to the Taliban at this stage, including massive economic relief, hoping for the best, and at least trying to make it happen.

Concluding Laments

There are deeper questions raised by the latest phase of the Afghan nightmare that haunt the future of the United States:

–Why can’t the American political class learn from China that the 21st century path to prosperity, security, and reputation is primarily based on adhering to these policies?–efficient state/society relations, especially with regard to private savings and public investments, respect for the sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination of other states, and fulfilling geopolitical ambitions beyond national borders by win/win infrastructure contributions to the development of other countries;

–When will the political class in America have the elusive blend of self-confidence and humility to understand why the United States has become the enemy and preferred target of acutely discontented people and their political movements around the world, and make appropriate adjustments, including giving up its worldwide network of military bases and naval commands? Security in the future depends on cooperative networks of global solidarity and not on innovations in military technology that turn the world into a single battlefield in a global forever war.