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Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on January 6, 2021 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

For these reasons it seems a dangerous mistake to address these issues of principle under the stress of extreme conditions generated by Trump in the aftermath of the lost November elections, culminating in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. Given the genuine national emergency resulting from an abusive president, the ad hoc responses of social media were benevolent in this instance, despite setting off alarms about entrusting the guardianship of democracy in the Digital Age to for profit private sector actors, especially given the concentration of market control, the wealth, and the record of regressive one-sidedness not only of social media, but of more traditional print and TV outlets. [See Michelle Goldberg, “The Scary Power of the Companies That Finally Shut Trump Up,” N Y Times, Jan. 11,2021; and more pointedly, Fraser Meyers, “Like him or not, the censorship of Donald Trump has set a terrifying precedent.” Information Clearing House, Jan. 12, 2021.] 

The pre-digital political life of the United States was already severely tilted to the right as a result of allowing money to pour toxic substances on the electoral process by which public officials at all levels of society are selected, as well as to fashion media empires around quasi-fascist worldviews. There is also a dumning down effect as the opposition, especially if not aligned with Wall Street or Silicon Valley, must itself beg for money rather than focus on issues, programs, and socio-economic justice. The result is the commodification of political life where beliefs and values are monetized.

Behind the tumult is the Trump electoral defeat in 2020, which Trump falsely attributed to reality-defying fraud, a macabre fairy tale that was accepted by an astonishing 70% of those who had voted for him and even a significant number of lawmakers who probably knew better, but thought their political careers would suffer more from breaking with Trump than sticking with him. But, perhaps, more astonishing is the nature of Biden’s victory. It was a clear political victory, 306-232 in electoral college votes, and a margin just over seven million in the popular vote. Yet, in one sense it was revealingly close, and actually registered a Republican victory in the state-level elections across America. If California and New York are removed from the Biden column, Trump wins in the electoral college and, narrowly, even the popular vote. By federalist logic, a large majority of the states making up the union, endorsed the Trump presidency even in the face of his malignancy as a leader, exhibited most devastatingly his COVID denialism that cost many lives and much misery, and brought the economy tumbling down. What should we as a country learn from this movement built by such a sinister demagogic pied piper?

From another angle, if COVID had not occurred, the economy would have remained strong, unemployment low, and no health crisis present to spoil his record of ‘achievements.’ In such an atmosphere, there seems little doubt that Trump would have rather easily prevailed by a margin no smaller than his surprise victory in 2016. What do these looks beneath the surface tell us, not only about the election, but about the public and governmental acceptance of four years of governance that deepened class, ethnic, and gender differences, that hurt badly the U.S. world reputation, that adopted a catastrophic denialist stand toward climate change, that championed alternative realities and proudly proclaimed post-truth guidelines, while ignoring urgent socio-economic disparities and infrastructure.

This Trump experience requires more than censorship, whether by the state or private sector. Above all, it calls for renewed attention to the deficiencies of citizen education. We have post-modern technology in a society that still cleaves to the worst forms of superstitious pre-modern worldviews. It is time for another ‘war,’ this time a ‘war on ‘ignorance’.’ After Trump the country needs a Second Enlightenment more even than the rectification of such evils as systemic racism,  ecological disregard, and commodified democracy.

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

Christmas in Turkey

27 Dec

[Prefatory Note: As my way of reaching out to the world of believers in the shared

spirituality of life, seekers of pathways of solidarity with others, learning to see through

a cosmic lens, wary of debates about the future while always receptive to dialogue.] 

Christmas in Turkey: a haiku    

Christmas in Turkey

Without decorated trees

Still sun shines skies blue

Yalikavak ,Turkey

December 27, 2020

Palestine Legal: Please Support & Donate

18 Dec
View this email in your browserDear Friend,

I have long been dedicated to supporting the Palestinian people in their long struggle to achieve basic rights. 
 
Just over a month ago we lost renowned Middle East correspondent, and my friend, Robert Fisk. Fisk’s writings starkly exposed the bias of the U.S. government towards Israel and revealed inconvenient truths about the many negative impacts of U.S. and Israeli imperialism throughout the region.
 
When I consider who carries forward the inspirational legacy of Fisk and many other honest witnesses of the human ordeals unfolding before us, Palestine Legal comes vividly to mind. That is why I am asking you to join me in supporting this vital organization this end of year.
 
At this time of massive falsehood and high-profile deceptions, we need courageous defenders of truth more than ever, and we need the help of experts in the law to gain essential protection against maliciously conceived and well-funded defamatory campaigns.
 
Palestine Legal is a brave, committed, and highly competent team of legal professionals who provide expert advice and advocacy support to grassroots activists, intellectuals, and everyday people who are trying to expose and oppose Israel’s array of unlawful policies and practices that have victimized Palestinians in so many ways.
 
As an ardent advocate for Palestinian human rights – at the UN and generally – I have frequently felt the heavy weight of false accusations and smears intended to undermine my public credibility and divert attention from Israel’s wrongdoing.
 
This experience made me aware of how often those so exposed need and value experienced guidance from congenial experts and a respected organization. With these concerns in mind, I have often referred friends and colleagues to Palestine Legal for assistance, and they have never been disappointed.
 
Accordingly, many of us have come to rely on Palestine Legal in the face of legal bullying, harassment, and accusations, and to provide resources to help us fight back. At stake is resisting efforts to shift the Israel/Palestine conversation away from the substance of Israeli wrongdoing to the contrived allegations of anti-Semitism and the like directed at those engaged in defending Palestinian human rights.
 
And in turn, Palestine Legal relies on you and me to ensure that all of us have the legal help we need to counter mounting attacks on those championing Palestinian rights. Can you join with me by donating today to enable Palestine Legal to continue to be there for all of us?
 
This is a time when our collective and individual rights to call for justice are under sustained assault from right-wing forces around the globe, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
 
Palestine Legal’s work is necessary not only for those of us involved in work for Palestinian human rights, but for anyone who believes in preserving space for open political debate and upholding our rights to protest, which are sacred elements of any genuine constitutional democracy. 
 
Needless to say, Palestine Legal’s work will remain urgently necessary under the next U.S. administration. Israel and its supporters are now being mobilized to exert all possible pressures on the Biden presidency to shut down and discredit this increasingly robust movement for Palestinian justice.
 
If we want to keep changing minds and start shifting U.S. policy in directions supportive of a just future for Palestine, we need to demonstrate our commitment to this steadfast civil society organization that so fiercely and effectively protects our democratic and activist rights.
 
As we approach the end of this most stressful year, please join me in supporting a phenomenal organization, Palestine Legal, as generously as you can. By your donations you will be helping all of us who are engaged freely and passionately on behalf Palestinian rights to be ever more effective.
With my thanks for your consideration,Richard Falk
Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine (2008-2014)

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Remembering Robert Fisk

15 Nov

[Prefatory Note: ‘Remembering Robert Fisk’ is the text of an interview conducted by Daniel Falcone, and published below on Nov. 9, 2020 in Counterpunch. There is one insertion mentioning Seymour Hersh as a fourth journalist in this style of exceptional devotion to the courage and craft of truth telling in place of danger or where transparency is obscured by state secrets.]

NOVEMBER 9, 2020

The Life of Robert Fisk

BY RICHARD FALK – DANIEL FALCONE

Robert Fisk. (UCTV).

In this interview, International Scholar Richard Falk provides his personal recollections of Robert Fisk. Falk explains how Fisk provided the world with well- informed perspectives that offered critical thinking and grim realities of the acute struggles stirring throughout the Middle East region. Falk comments on Fisk’s “unsparing exposure of Israeli abusive policies and practices toward the Palestinian people” indicating that his “departure from the region left a journalistic gap that has not been filled.”

Falk also discusses how the study, coverage and understanding of the Palestinian cause has shifted over the years from one of “exposing the hypocrisy and greed of the powerful” to more political and activist-centered solution based forms, within geo-political coverage. Despite this, Falk praises Fisk for “his commitments to peace, self-determination, and neutrality.” 

Daniel Falcone: I can recall being amazed by Robert Fisk’s researching capabilities and stamina. In order to read both Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilization it requires the reader to get through over 1,700 pages. Can you comment on Fisk’s reporting over the years in general as a Middle East correspondent?

Richard Falk: Fisk was a vivid writer with a startling ability to observe, comment, and interpret. Fisk could be read for literary satisfaction as well as for a kind of episodic journalistic autobiography that brought together his experience of contemporary wars and strife. What his published books establish is the extent of Fisk’s illuminating understanding of turmoil in the world, and the degree to which the blood being spilled can be traced back to European colonialism and forward to American imperial ambition in both Asia and the Middle East.

Daniel Falcone: Can you explain how in your view Robert Fisk’s reporting and writings shaped understandings and perceptions of the Middle East? Do you recall any professional and personal interactions with him over the years? How do you categorize his journalistic reputation and writing style?

Richard Falk: Robert Fisk was one of the few journalists in the world relied upon to give first-hand reports from the fields of strife on the conflicts occurring throughout the Middle East. His reportage seemed guided by an overriding commitment to truthfulness as to facts, brashness and vividness of reporting style, and an interpretative understanding that got it right from perspectives of human consequences.

He was given the most dangerous combat assignments in several of the most challenging hot spots in the world, including Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Lebanon (declaring Beirut as his home) during its decade-long civil war, and Afghanistan during the period when the West was arming Afghan extremists to oppose the Russian presence. In the latter role, he was badly beaten by Afghans enraged by the Western interventions and yet Fisk explained to the world while still bloody that he empathized with Afghan anger as their villages and homes were being devastated by U.S. air attacks and a combat role that escalated the violence.

Specifically, in the Middle East, Fisk gave the world a truly independent, informed, and critical understanding of the struggles occurring throughout the region, including an unsparing exposure of Israeli abusive policies and practices toward the Palestinian people. Fisk’s departure from the region left a journalistic gap that has not been filled. It is important to appreciate that there are few war correspondents in the world that combine Fisk’s reporting fearlessness with his interpretative depth, engaging writing style, and candid exposures of the foibles of the high and mighty.

Fisk never sought refuge by hiding behind curtains of political correctness. On the contrary, he prided himself on a commitment to what might be called ‘judgmental journalism’ in his professional demeanor, which is best understood as portraying reality as he saw and experienced it, which in Middle East contexts meant stripping away the geopolitical delusions peddled by powerful government to hide their true motives. He was particularly controversial in recent years by depicting the U.S. anti-Damascus combat role in Syria as not really about the future of Syria or even counterterrorism, as Washington claimed, but was mainly motivated, with prodding from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, by anti-Iran, anti-Shi’ia containment and destabilization goals.

This assessment was confirmed by my two personal interactions with Fisk that illustrated his approach to truth-telling in two very different contexts. The first occurred a bit over 20 years ago. I was interviewed by a Libyan film crew who were surprised by finding Princeton police at my house at the same time due to some death threats I received after supporting Palestinian grievances during an appearance on the BBC program ‘Panorama.’

The young Libyan filmmakers were making a documentary on the evolution of Israel/Palestine relations. After finishing with me they left for Beirut to interview Fisk, conveying to him that my house was guarded as I was living under threat. This exaggerated the reality of my situation, and prompted Fisk to write a column for The Independent without ever contacting me describing my situation as emblematic of Zionist efforts to intimidate critics of Israel by threats of violence.

As a sign of his worldwide impact, I received more than 100 messages of solidarity, many of which said that they were praying for my safety. The drama past, but I cannot imagine another prominent journalist willing to go out on a limb to show concern for someone in my circumstances. At the same time, I cannot imagine writing such a piece without checking the facts with the person in question.

This latter point goes to the one widespread criticism of Fisk’s flamboyant approach, which took note of his impatience with details, and willing to craft his articles around truths he firmly accepted as descriptive of reality. In my case, he didn’t really care if the Libyans were reliably reporting as it was a helpful anecdote for making the underlying argument that he correctly believed to be descriptive of reality—namely, Zionist tactics of intimidation to quiet or even silence voices of criticism. This is an interesting issue raising questions about the distinction between core and peripheral reliability.

Whereas the journeymen journalists are wary of going against the prevailing consensus on core issues (for instance, they slant reality in pro-Israeli direction, and would have described me as an extreme critic of Israel or even someone accused of being ‘anti-Semitic), the Fisks of this world embellish peripheral matters to engage their readers while being reliable forthright on core matters even when offensive to the societal majority. Although Fisk did this in a progressive vein, others take similar factual liberties to feed the conspiratorial and reactionary appetites of their right-wing followers.

My other equally illuminating contact with Fisk was during a West Coast visit a decade ago, when he came to California to give a university lecture. I was approached by the organizers to act as his chauffer during the visit, which I was thrilled to do. It gave me the opportunity to confirm Fisk’s reputation as highly individualistic, irreverent, and provocative self that was on display whether he was reporting from a war zone or talking to students on a college campus. The large turnout and enthusiastic audience reception made clear that Fisk’s influence spreads far beyond readers of his columns in The Independent.

He was recognized throughout the world as a colorful celebrity journalist whose words mattered. There are almost none who have his mixture of bravado, insight, and commitment, and still manage affiliations with mainstream news outlets. In my mind Fisk is a positive example of a celebrity journalist, which for me contrasts negatively with the sort of liberal punditry that issues from the celebrity pen of Thomas Friedman. Whereas Fisk is comfortable in his role of talking truth to power, Friedman relishes his role as the self-proclaimed sage observer who tenders advice to the rich and powerful as to how to realize their goals, combining an arrogance of style with faithful adherence to the pillars of Western orthodoxy (predatory capitalism, global militarism, special relationship with Israel).

Daniel Falcone: What special qualities did Robert Fisk possess that made him so influential and memorable, and perhaps the most distinguished journalist of our time? What did Fisk think of the other styles of journalism that perhaps differed from his own?

Richard Falk: For perspective, I recall my contact, and in these instances, friendship with three other exceptional war correspondents whose traits somewhat resemble the qualities that have made Fisk’s death an irreplaceable loss: Eric Rouleau of Le MondeGloria Emerson of the NY Times, and Peter Arnett of Associated Press. Each of them shared a flair for adventure, a pride in their stand-alone journalistic style, a fearlessness in the face of extreme danger that endeared them to combatants, and a sensibility that hovered between the sadness of loneliness and a love of solitude.

These qualities were accompanied in each instance by fiercely independent personalities that gave their home office minders both pride in their stellar reporting and anxious fits as they breached the red lines of establishment thinking. By their nature, such individuals were mavericks who eluded managerial control. They also each shared contempt for what Fisk described as ‘hotel journalism,’ that is, the practice of leading journalists hiring locals to give them stories from the front lines of confrontation while spending most of their days sipping martinis at the hotel bar.

I never observed Fisk at work, but feel confident that his working style resembled that of these others. I did have the opportunity to be with Eric Rouleau in Tehran during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, heard accounts of Gloria Emerson’s comradery with American soldiers in combat situations, and was with Peter Arnett in Hanoi while engaged in accompanying three released American POWs back to the United States in the last stage of the Vietnam War.

Although distinct and different in personality and interests, each shared this sense of wanting to get to the bottom of what was happening in the field while listening to the views of leaders, however controversial, in one-on-one. Both Fisk and Arnett were among the few Western journalists who interviewed Osama Bin Laden in the late 1990s. It is reported that Bin Laden was so impressed by Fisk’s approach that he invited him to become a Muslim since he already displayed his devotion to truth.

Fisk’s famously reacted at the end of 2001 to being beaten nearly to death by a mob of angry Afghan refugees living in a Pakistani border village who recognized him as a Westerner when his car broke down, and vented their anger by a brutal attack that was halted by a local Muslim leader. Fisk’s words, which included disapproval of such violence, were also atypical for most, but characteristic for him: Of the attacker he said “There is every reason to be angry. I’ve been an outspoken critic of the US actions myself. If I had been them, I would have attacked me.”

Aside from Fisk, Sy Hersh was undoubtedly the most successful in revealing inconvenient truths, starting with the MyLai massacre coverup involving the execution of over 347 Vietnamese villagers in 1968 midway in the American War in Vietnam, and more recently revealing the story of how Israel covertly succeeded in developing nuclear weapons and how ISIS was secretly supplied with weapons by leading NATO counterterrorist governments because of their anti-Assad priority. I knew Sy by way of Gloria Emerson who served him in dual roles as mentor and guardian angel, traveling the same routes a generation earlier, and somehow giving him the confidence and support that someone who swims against strong currents needs. As with all of these star journalists, Sy was by temperament blunt and persistent whenever the occasion called for getting beneath the surface.

Daniel Falcone: How did Fisk cover the Palestinians? What is his legacy on the coverage of the conflict? Are there any journalistic outfits, think-tanks, organizations or academics that you consider to cover the plight of the Palestinian people well while providing context the way Robert Fisk did?

Richard Falk: Fisk took for granted his support for the Palestinian struggle, his disgust at the tactics of control relied upon by Israel, while condemning America’s use of its geopolitical muscle contributed to the prolonged struggle of the Palestinians for breathing space in their own homeland. This should not be understood as Fisk adopting a blind eye toward Palestinian wrongdoing and diplomatic clumsiness. He was almost alone among influential journalists in voicing skepticism from the outset of the Oslo peace process initiated on the White House Lawn in 1993. Fisk, above all, blended his passion for core truths with an undisguised judgmental approach toward wrongful conduct, regardless of the eminence of the target.

There are many initiatives that try to present the Palestinian ordeal in a realistic way, and I have dealt from time to time with many of them. I would mention, first of all, Jewish Voice for Peace, which has done its best to express views that acknowledge the violations of Palestinian basic rights, including imposition of an apartheid regime that oppresses, fragments, and victimizes the Palestinians as a people whether through occupation, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and denial of elemental rights of return. Palestine Legal has been courageous and highly competent, providing expert guidance and involvement in legal cases and controversies involving issues bearing on Palestinian rights.

In journalistic and academic circles there are a few bright spots in the United States. As online sources of information, insight, and reportage sympathetic to the Palestinians I would mention Mondoweiss, Middle East Eye, and the Electronic Intifada, each well edited, online publishers of quality material. Among individuals who have been outspoken and influential I would mention Marwan BisharaPhyllis BennisNorman FinkelsteinNoam ChomskyIlan PappeNoura ErakatLawrence Davidson, and Virginia Tilley.

Over the years, I have had little patience with the tortured reasoning and moral pretentiousness of ‘liberal Zionists’ who jump at any partisan olive branch so long as it leaves Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital and doesn’t require giving up most of the unlawful settlements in the West Bank. However, the recent abandonment of such a posture by the most eminent of liberal Zionists, Peter Beinart, is both a refreshing realization that Zionism is not reconcilable with a sustainable peace and a signal to American Jews to rethink the format for a political compromise that shifts away from the two-state mantra.

In Israel and Occupied Palestine there have been perceptive and brave NGOs that have been outspoken in their criticism of Israeli tactics. In Israel I would mention B’Tselem on violations of human rights, Badil on questions bearing on the treatment of Palestinian refugees and residents of Israel, and Israel Committee Against House Demolitions. Several Israeli journalists have been outspoken critics of Israel behavior toward Palestine, and I would express particular admiration for Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.

Among intellectually inclined progressive activists, Jeff Halper shines, writing several important books, including War Against People: Israel, Palestinians, and Global Pacification (2015). He has an outstanding forthcoming book, an exceptional example of ‘advocacy journalism’ insisting that one democratic state with equality for both peoples is the only path to a just and sustainable peace. If it is to be achieved it must include accepting certain views: the reality of Israel as a settler colonial state, the non-viability of the Zionist project to establish and maintain an exclusivist Jewish state, and the dependence on a grassroots collaborative political process of Jews and Palestinians seeking a just peace through democratization and basic rights.

In Occupied Palestine, Mohammed Omer acted as a brave war correspondent under the most difficult conditions, and endured harsh physical abuse by Israeli security forces. In relation to human rights, Raji Sourani an outstanding lawyer, has for many, many years documented abusive Israeli behavior in Gaza, including identifying its criminal character, while serving as Director of the Palestine Centre of Human Rights in Gaza. He has been imprisoned several times by Israel and arrested on at least one occasion by the Palestinian Authority.

I have had the opportunity to know and work with almost all of these individuals and groups, and have admired their courage, perseverance, and dedication to justice. Their ethic has had an advocacy, solutions-oriented character that never seemed an integral part of Fisk’s contributions that were more focused on exposing the hypocrisy and greed of the powerful, than finding solutions for bloody conflict beyond the anti-imperialist advocacy of withdrawal and peacemaking, although he never made a secret of his commitments to peace, self-determination, and neutrality.

Reaching 90 in 2020

13 Nov

Reaching 90 in 2020

A year darkly memorable

                        Months before the pandemic

                                    Before George Floyd’s martyrdom

Trump stalking the ramparts

                        Issuing cowardly murder decrees

                                    While I mourn each monstrous death 

Among the vultures

                        The bodies started piling up soon after

                                    The new year’s welcoming bells

Three days later

                        All iran mourned Qasem Soleimani’s death

Murdered by drone—his crime: seeking peace

A toxic reckoning an omen 

                        From a toxic White House

                                    The start of this toxic time

And yet 

            Breathing clean air 

                        In Yalikavak 

                                    Inhaling the love         

                                                Of those I love and cherish

Makes me believe

                        Being alive being not alone at 90

                                    Is sacred a dwelling

                                                Among now reticent gods

True darkness descends         

                        Midday on earth

                                    For iconic deaths

Angels are weeping

                        For children for lost love

                                    For Soleimani for Floyd

For magnificent animals

                        Plundered for fun for gain

                                    Imprisoned as jungles empty

True lords of our earth

            While whales wander with wonder

                        Dethroned sovereigns of the seas 

At 90 amid the joy of being

                        A judgment haunts me

                                    Reached by a black woman poet

                                                ‘We were never meant to survive.’

Yalikavak, Turkey

November 13, 2030

Making Sense of Hunger Strikes and Symbolic Politics

12 Nov

[Prefatory Note: What follows is my contribution to a forthcoming publication bearing the title Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers. This important collection of writing prepared by Norma Hashim and Yousef M. Aljami. It appeared by way of exclusive arrangement on October 27, 2020 in the online magazine Politics Today. My essay speaks to the hunger strikes as political resistance of a sublime character, and at the same time to the selective silence of the Western media when it comes to heroic moments in the Palestinian struggle. Just days ago Maher Al-Akhras ended his 103 day hunger strike when Israel finally agreed to his release from prison after repeated confinement without charges under colonialist ‘administrative detention’ rulings. ]

Making Sense of Hunger Strikes and Symbolic Politics

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A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask walks past a mural depicting prisoner Maher Al-Akhras, 49, a Palestinian jailed by Israel, who has been on hunger strike for 84 days, protesting his detention without trial, in Gaza City October 18, 2020. Photo by Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images

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 claims of legal authorization are treated as appropriate. If even nonviolent acts of resistance by individuals associated with dissident movements, then the established order and its supportive media will routinely describe such acts as ‘terrorism,’ ‘criminality,’ and ‘fanaticism,’ and the behavior is criminalized, or at best exposed to scorn by the established order of sovereign states. 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 Northern 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 life itself for goals deemed more important. These goals usually involve either safeguarding dignity or honor of 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 Northern 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, they go on in the end to endure political defeat. It may be helpful to remember that it was the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon during the 1960s was considered a scream of the culture in reaction to the American led military intervention. It led Vietnamese scholars to interpret these extreme acts of solitary individuals, endowed with the highest civilizational authority, as actually 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 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 expected. Tragically before acknowledging 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 logic of a hunger strike to its 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 set the region ablaze. Such a reaction could not have been predicted and was not planned, yet afterwards it was interpreted as somehow generating 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 India.

Both the oppressed and the oppressors learn from past successes and failures of symbolic politics. The oppressed view it as an ultimate and ennobling approach to resistance and liberation. Oppressors learn that wars are often not decided by who wins on the battlefield but by the side that gains a decisive advantage symbolically in what I have previously called ‘legitimacy wars.’ With this knowledge of their vulnerability, oppressors fight back, defame and use violence to destroy by any means the will of the oppressed 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.


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srael’s version of an apartheid regime evolved as a necessary side effect of establishing an exclusivist Jewish state in a non-Jewish state. This Zionist project required that the Palestinian people become victims of colonialist displacement in their own homeland. Israel learned from the South African experience 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, and to do so requires not only repression of resistors but the demoralization of supporters.

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 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, yet even Israel does not want to be humiliated in ways that can arouse international public opinion to move beyond the rhetoric of censure in the direction of sanctions. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t want Palestinian hunger strikers to die while in captivity, not because of empathy, but to avoid bad publicity. To prevent such outcomes, Israeli prison authorities will make concessions, including even release, when a hunger striker is feared at the brink of death, and earlier attempts at force feeding have failed. 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 defeat in this longest of legitimacy wars.

It is against such a background that Palestinian and Irish contributions came to surface to underscore the essential similarity of these two epic anti-colonial struggles. What gives the stories of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers the 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 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, although the dreams of the Irish hunger strikers remain largely unrealized. At the same time, 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.

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Responses to an Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia Interview Questions on U.S. Elections (8 Oct 2020).]

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

  1. What is the most important issue affecting the upcoming US presidential election? (Economy; Foreign Policy; Domestic Policy; etc.)

For the voters in America the most important issues at this time are the (mis)management of the health crisis by Trump and the impact on the recovery of the U.S. economy. At this point there is a surge of criticism directed at the present U.S. leadership with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic: more infections and deaths per capita than almost any country in the world, intentional disregard of guidance by health specialists, dishonest and irresponsible reassurances, and economic relief favoring the rich and influential while understating the economic distress caused others by the loss of jobs, food insecurities, and threats of eviction. There is little interest, at least up to this point, in foreign policy with the single exception of international economic relations and geopolitical tensions with China. Both candidates for the presidency seem to adopt anti-Chinese positions, but Biden seems less militaristic and provocative than Trump. Biden refrains from blaming China for the virus, and seems somewhat less likely to embrace a strategy in East Asia that will lead to a second cold war.

For the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere, the foreign policy implications of the elections assume greater importance. As with China, Trump seems more inclined than Biden to push the anti-Iran coalition of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia toward the brink of war, with the hope that the persistence of ‘maximum pressure’ will cause destabilization in Iran, and if possible, regime change. Biden would not likely change very much in terms of alignment, but might be expected to be more cautious in endorsing aggressive policies, and might even restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated toward the end of the Obama presidency. At the same time, Biden might be more inclined than Trump to push an anti-Russian approach that could take the form of regional and global confrontations, as well as arms races in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.  

One cost of such foreign policy initiatives is to weaken the attention given to challenges  that can only be solved by multilateral cooperation at a time when it is most needed, especially in relation to climate change, the control of nuclear weaponry, migration flows, and health issues. As noted above, Biden is much more likely to renew American support for ‘liberal internationalism’ than Trump, and can almost certainly be expected to do so unless geopolitically distracted.

There are other hot spots around the world that are capable of generating dangerous foreign policy crises, especially in relation to Korea or India/Pakistan.

2. Which candidate has the best chance of winning? (Trump or Biden)

As of now, it appears that Biden will win the election rather decisively, but in 2016 there existed a comparable clear outlook close to vote, reinforced by public opinion polls. It created a strong impression that Hillary Clinton would win easily over Donald Trump, a view almost universally shared by the media, and reportedly even by the Trump campaign. The American political mood is unstable, and could be influenced by developments in the coming weeks as the date of the election approaches that are supportive of Trump’s campaign for reelection as, for example, violent riots in American cities, a further surge in the financial markets, a crisis in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. .

Additionally, there are a series of factors that sow doubt about present expectations of a Biden victory that go beyond which candidate will gain the most votess: first of all, Biden could win the popular vote by a wide margin, and yet lose the election because of the way in which the peculiar American institution of the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections by counting the results on a federal state by state basis rather than nationally. This happened in 2016, Hillary Clinton winning by wide margins in New York and California, but losing close votes in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. According to the Electoral College a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes assigned to a state if he wins by one vote or 10 million votes. The value of the vote in states where one party dominates, an individual vote becomes of diluted value, whereas if both parties are more or less of similar popularity, the value of an individual vote is inflated. The question posed is whether the Electoral College vote will again override the popular vote as it did in 2106.

Secondly, it is well known that Republican control of governments in the 50 states making up the U.S. has resulted in a variety of voter suppression schemes that make it harder to vote, and particularly affects African Americans and the very poor, making voting more difficult i cities and the rural South. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting as subject to mass fraud although the evidence in no way supports the accusation. Less votes are seen as helping Trump. Republicans are better organized and more disciplined than Democrats, although the Democrats have devoted great energy this year to getting out the vote.

Thirdly, Trump has intimated that he can only lose the election if it is has been ‘rigged’ by the Democrats. The reality seems to justify a different complaint that targets the Republicans. Much of the rigging that occurred in 2016 was attributable to Russia, and definitely worked in Trump’s favor, being intended to do so. Back then such partisan interference seemed welcomed by the Republican campaign, and likely would be again.  There are concerns that similar interferences might occur again this time around as Russia continues to prefer Trump to Biden, although there seems to be a greater effort in 2020 to insulate the election process from outside interferences, especially in relation to social media.

It is important to grasp a basic ideological feature of recent American elections of the presidency. Ever since the unified response to fascism during World War II the political parties have accepted a ‘bipartisan consensus’ that almost completely excludes certain crucial policy commitments from political controversy. The most important of these is overinvestment in the military, the predatory features of global capitalism, and so-called ‘special relationships’ with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European alliance partners. This consensus held up throughout the Cold War, was sustained during the banner years of neoliberal globalization in the decade of the 1990s, and reinvigorated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon after George W. Bush launched the war on terror, and Barack Obama continued it. 

Bernie Sanders challenged this consensus as it impacted upon policy discourse during his two campaigns to obtain the Democratic Party nomination, but his efforts were rejected by the party elite because he threatened the consensus, defied the ‘deep state,’ worried the Washington foreign policy establishment, and frightened the large private sector donors whose funding support depended on respecting the bipartisan consensus. In this sense, the Democrats successfully subordinated in their own party all radical elements that enjoyed movement support, especially among youth. The Republicans sidelined their moderate leadership, giving over control of the party to extremists that formed the base of Trump support. And so while the Democratic Party establishment neutralized the progressive Sanders’ challenge the Republican Party was radicalized from the right giving Trump control over all mechanism.

In part, it is this issue of party identity, and its relation to the governmental structures of power, that may be the most important effect of the November elections. If Biden wins, the bipartisan consensus is reaffirmed, while if Trump somehow prevails, the bipartisan will be further weakened, and even threatened by replacing the consensus with a right-wing policy agenda. If Biden loses, the consensus will be further discredited by its mistaken view that moving toward the political center is what wins election. What evidence exists by polls and other measurements of public opinion suggest that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but for reasons suggested above, adhering to the bipartisan consensus was more important or Democrats than winning elections. 

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Should Iran Be Concerned About the U.S. Elections?

30 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was published by Mehr New Agency on 27 Sept 2020 in Tehran. It addresses questions that arise for foreign societies when seeking to comprehend the spectacle of the 2020 national elections in the United States. The outcome of the Trump/Biden struggle for presidential leadership is, of course, of particular concern to Iran.]

Should Iran Be Concerned About the U.S. Elections?

 

Q1: Can the US election be considered a fully democratic election?

 

No, the American elections as currently administered on  national level are not fully democratic for three principal reasons: (1) most obviously, due to various forms of voter suppression and distortion encroaching especially on the rights of persons of color and the impoverished to cast their votes either as a result of difficult registration rules or by making polling sites feel hostile or requiring especially long waits in neighborhoods where minorities and the poor live; (2) by presidential opposition to voting by mail and by alleging fraud and rigging without any evidence imperiling his willing to transfer political power if he loses, undermining confidence in the integrity of elections and causing the public great anxiety; (3) by not acknowledging and challenging ‘systemic racism’ inherent in American society that produces discrimination against African-Americans, Muslims, and other victimized minorities.

 

Q2: How do money, power and media affect the presidential election?

 

The electoral process in the United States is dominated by money, power, and mainstream media boundaries on ‘responsible’ discourse. This domination is expressed in different ways. The influence of large donors is felt in shaping party platforms and the positions of candidates, perhaps most obviously in securing pledges from candidates of unconditional support for Israel, and by refraining from any fundamental criticism of the military budget or the workings of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Both political parties are subject to the priorities, interests, and beliefs of political and economic elites that often ignore the wishes of the citizenry as expressed through public opinion polls. Mainstream media, and its editorial pages and TV anchors, generally reflect and respect this bipartisan consensus that has set boundaries on political discourse that are rarely violated, and create a media bias supportive of things as they are, especially with respect to fundamental issues.

 

These tendencies are most pronounced and evident in relation to foreign policy where progressive critics are rarely access so as to participate in public debates. Media and Congressional views are shaped by a consensus that is managed by ‘deep state’ forces inhabiting the U.S. bureaucracies in the intelligence, defense, and diplomatic sectors, and reflect deference to money, power, and media. The working of this anti-democratic, choiceless political process is evident in recent treatments of Iran and China, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela and Turkey. There is no consideration of policy alternatives that would lead to greater peace, justice, and respect for different governing styles and development approaches. This foreclosure of alternative ways of relating to the world are recently most evident in the U.S. approach to Iran and China. Relations with Iran are unnecessarily provocative, and might moderate somewhat if Biden defeats Trump, but not fundamentally. With China, a slide toward geopolitical confrontation is favored by both political parties as reflected in the presidential campaigns, and might be more aggressively pursued if Biden wins, assuming that Trump does not effectively obstruct the transfer of political power. A second cold war would be costly for humanity and disastrous for the United States, at a time when national policies, resources, and diplomatic efforts should be seeking global cooperation, global solutions to global problems, and attend to serious deficiencies in domestic infrastructure. The COVID crisis highlighted the shortcomings of national antagonisms in the face of a global health challenge that could have been greatly mitigated by a more cooperative international approach based on the recognition that ‘we are all in this together.’

 

Q3: Why do minor political parties have such little success competing in US elections?

 

Given the 50 separate federalist units that constitute the United States, there was an understandable concern during its entire history about political fragmentation, which led to making it burdensome procedurally and economically to organize political parties. The two-party framework is further reinforced by the media tendency to exclude third party voices and positions such as the Green Party from national debates. Also, even legislative participation is almost impossible as the minority party candidate must win by a majority in any electoral district unlike other countries where a 5% or 10% of the vote qualifies the party for representation, and greater diversity in the annals of government, but in some circumstances great confusion. Perhaps, most important of all, is the widely felt sense that a vote for a third party candidate is a wasted vote as the only meaningful candidacy is that of one of the two dominant parties.

 

In recent decades, the bipartisan consensus is served well by keeping minor parties at the outer margins of policy debate. It makes the consensus appear to be the only reasonable political option. This is misleading and discourages citizen participation by those who dissent. In reality, there is more questioning of American priorities with respect both to global militarism and predatory capitalism than is apparent, but such questioning only gets broader attention at some progressive online publications and websites. It will take a movement rather than electoral outcomes to challenge these structural characteristics of the American political system, which must culminate in the revamping of both political parties and the shattering of the bipartisan consensus, whose origins are rooted in the World II struggle against fascism and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. The consensus lingers in the 21st century after the Soviet collapse, taking the form of launching ‘the war on terror,’ responding to ‘the clash of civilizations,’ and now supporting the prospect of a new cold war or a regime-changing approach to Iran.

 

Q4: Why is turnout so low in US elections?

 

Electoral turnout has been low in recent years because the perceptions of living in a ‘choiceless’ democracy give many U.S. citizens the impression that it does not matter who wins as either way the problems of their lives will not be solved. Perhaps, more than choiceless, a better existential explanation of this disvaluing of the right to vote is the sense of what I would call irrelevant democracy. This means that political outcomes of elections are felt to be irrelevant to conditions of poverty or discrimination, or economic unfairness, an interpretation that gains credibility that it is ‘the losers’ in American society that make up the bulk of those who fail to vote, sometimes out of principled rejection of both candidates being put forward. It reflects deep alienation in middle class and underclass America, which has been somewhat lessened at this time due to a fear that Trump’s reelection could produce a fascist America. This fear will undoubtedly increase voter turnout in November, but not necessarily in a post-Trump future.

 

Although it is the disadvantaged who disproportionately refrain from voting (and partly also for reasons connected with voter suppression discussed in response to Q1), there are sophisticated citizens who refuse to vote on principle or vote under the banner of ‘the lesser of evils.’ Progressive anti-Trumpists are faced with this dilemma in the forthcoming elections. Biden’s record, especially on international issues and the Middle East, is of a consistently war-mongering character that includes strong support for the disastrous 2003 war and subsequent occupation of Iraq and mindless indifference to Israel’s criminal disregard of Palestinian rights. Besides, as suggested, Biden seems as readier for a new cold war than Trump. His version of the foreign policy bipartisan consensus is more coherent and deferential to the considered views of the political elite and militarized American bureaucracy while Trump is an impulsive leader that thinks he can by himself engineer a revival of American preeminence by bullying, bluster, and bluff.

 

My own reluctant support of Biden is rooted in my greater apprehensions about Trump, which also explains why I equally reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she opposed Trump. I regard his demagogic style, racist affinities, ultra-nationalism, ecological denialism as a vehicle for a fascist future for the United States, which would mean the total abandonment of democratic procedures of governance, accompanied by repressive policies and practicess. Such an abandonment would almost certainly produce harsh exclusionary hostility to immigration except from majority white countries, punishment of dissent and protest activity, and an economic and political order even more slanted in favor of the most wealthy. My reluctance about the electoral choice posed by Biden or Trump is also colored by uncertainty in the form of an obscure future. I fear a belligerent future in which Biden’s approach leads to interventions and even war, whereas I grant the possibility that a reelected Trump could opt for isolationism, which resulted in more moderation in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Q5: What role does AIPAC play in US elections?

 

AIPAC is a strong lobbying group that is perceived by the political parties to exert great influence on large Jewish donors and Jewish voters generally. The leadership of both parties compete for AIPAC approval, although as an organization it refrains from political endorsements at national levels. It does have a record of opposing Congressional candidates deemed critical of Israel, making inflammatory accusations that candidates critical of Israel are by that fact alone anti-Semitic. Such a campaign has been launched with at least implicit AIPAC support to defeat the candidacy of Ilhan Omer who is running for reelection in urban Minneapolis.

 

Part of the effectiveness of AIPAC is due to money and tight organizational discipline, and part of its influence is due to the absence of countervailing Jewish organizations that speak for liberal Zionism and progressive Jews. J-Street has attempted to provide a voice for liberal Zionism in Washington, and has limited success at legislative levels, but not in relation to party platforms or the selection of national candidates. Jewish Voice for Peace is an admirably balanced NGO, but its influence is mainly felt in civil society, where it has created growing support for a just outcome of this struggle that has gone on for a century, which includes supported the realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination whether in the form of a viable separate sovereign state or a single state whose foundational principle is ethnic equality.

 

Throughout its existence AIPAC has been and remains subservient to the priorities of Israeli leadership and consistently supportive of maximal Zionist goals, and hence an adherent of antagonistic attitudes on international law, the UN, and international morality. In my judgment, AIPAC has harmed the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and at the UN by pushing American foreign policy in belligerent and regime-changing directions, focusing on heightening the confrontation with Iran, and secondarily, with Turkey, which has intensified regional tensions and dangers of war. The recent sanctions debate in the UN Security Council manifested both U.S. belligerence and its defiance of the views of even its normally close European allies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q: Why do minor political parties have such little success competing in US elections?

 

Q: Why is turnout so low in US elections?

 

Q: What role does AIPAC play in US elections?

 

Iconic Deaths and What They Mean: George Floyd and Ruth Bader Ginsberg

26 Sep

Iconic Deaths and What They Mean: George Floyd and Ruth Bader Ginsberg

2020 is a year that will be remembered for its many distinctive features—the global reach and lethality of the COVID pandemic, worldwide protests against racism, and likely, to come, the outcome and aftermath of an American presidential election with likely severe worldwide reverberations. Yet one of the least conceptualized aspects up until now is the occurrence of two very different iconic deaths.’ By according an iconic status to an individual’s death is to acknowledge its historic impact. In one case, that of George Floyd, victim of police murder on May 25th, the impacts of his shocking death were immediate and astonishing for their scope and potentially transformative effects on how human people treat one another. Floyd’s death was iconic while hiss life had no broad historic significance.

 

 

With Ruth Bader Ginsberg her death brought to an the experience of an iconic life, a legendary figure who made creative use of law to overcome gender discrimination. Her death was also an iconic event for multiple reasons, perhaps most salient as a result of its occurrence at a moment where it could profoundly affect the orientation of the U.S. Supreme Court for decades. Had RBG died six months earlier or later her death would not have caused such a stir, and her historic significance would focused on celebrating her lifetime achievements, memorialized by making her the first woman to lie in state on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. By dying when she did. RBG produced a constitutional and consequential crisis over the appropriateness of rushing to confirm a successor prior to the presidential election scheduled for November 3rd. Actually, even if she had been a rather undistinguished justice of the Supreme Court her death at this time would be hugely significant if not iconic. Unlike Floyd, whose death was a result of a heinous police crime, Ginsberg died of natural causes, and so her death becomes iconic not because of its character but because of its potentially momentous impact on the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in presiding over the judicial responses to controversial social and economic policies for coming decades. The fact that she was the first woman to lie in state on the steps of her the Capitol is a recognition of her iconic life, and was not occasioned by the timing or unrelated importance of her death.

 

In the annals of American experience, we have to go back to Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination to find a somewhat comparable case of an iconic life followed by an iconic death. In King’s case the assassination of this non-violent charismatic figure sparked riots and led to a new surge of support for the civil rights movement that had been his life’s work. King, like Floyd, was the victim of a criminal act, which in both cases sparked to explosive political responses that tested the resilience, flexibility, and core values of the governing political framework in the United States.

 

The only recent comparable case to that of Floyd is the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, and 28 days later after an escalating series of protest events throughout the country, the dictator of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fell from power and fled the country. The death of this heretofore anonymous street vendor not only sparked a successful revolution surge against the Tunisian dictatorial regime but led directly to various types of massive protest activity that rocked the established order throughout the Arab World. These uprising in turn gave rise to a variety of violent reactions, principally leading in some national instances to a counterrevolutionary return to oppressive patterns of governance and in others to prolonged civil strife. Without belittling the anguish of family grieving after such death, the life of Floyd, as with Bouazizi became publicly notable only due to the manner of his death, and the aftermath that occurred; had either man died naturally or in a barroom brawl their lives would have been known only to his family and circle of acquaintances. which was also the case for both men.

The manner of Floyd’s death was iconic, and not only because of its tumultuous aftermath, but because it also exposed the underlying reality of the victimization of people of color due to police brutality. In this sense if Floyd’s death did not have this metaphorical resonance it might have been briefly newsworthy as in earlier comparable instances, but soon faded from view, depriving his life and particularly his death of such lasting value. Floyd’s death became iconic because it was not an isolated event, but came after a series of police killings of blacks under incriminating circumstances and leading to coverups and evasions rather than indictments and convictions. Floyd’s death, in the context that occurred, given added veracity as his dying was seen by millions as a result of a video, which helped create a tipping point from which outrage over police abuse mutated from a series of incidents to a plausible diagnosis of ‘systemic racism,’ which called for remedial justice that went beyond police reform to the entire socio-economic structure that denies equality to racial minorities.

 

Why should we accord attention to iconic deaths? By considering the cases of Floyd, King, Bouazizi we come to understand that certain modes of dying can under certain circumstances provide the spark that produces revolutionary upsurges. Such upsurges are expressive of simmering or dormant underlying condition of injustice or dissatisfaction that had invisibly reached the outer limit of collective patience. This invisibility accounts for the magnitude of the reaction being regarded as unexpected, a surprise, and even a mystery.

 

 

In RBG’s case her death only becomes iconic because of the unusually ruthless and reckless opportunism of the leader and his political party that seeks to take partisan advantage of an opportunity to promote to the Supreme Court a reliable ideological ally while still holding the reins of power, which risk being lost in the weeks ahead through either the defeat of Trump or the loss of Republican control of the Senate. There would still remain the lame duck gap between the election of a new president and the inauguration of the next president on January 20, 2021 where it would still be possible to thwart the normally legitimate practice of allowing the electoral choice of the people make such a judicial appointment. Here it is particularly vital as the Court is so evenly balanced, and the undisguised Republican intention is to fill the now vacant seat with a judge whose legal philosophy on wedge issues is almost diametrically opposed to the views held by Ginsberg. She may be receiving national honors by flying flags at half-mast or by having her body lie in state but her judicial legacy is in the process of being dishonored, perhaps solely because of the untimeliness of her death.

 

Iconic deaths are rare, and much rarer than iconic lives. There are other notable violent and unnatural deaths of Americans who had led iconic lives. Such deaths give the social order a temporary shock effect and have been the occasion of mass grieving, commentary, and retrospective assessments, including those of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. Yet none of these deaths were iconic in the sense meant here–producing such an immediate and significant post-mortem historic impact. We remember these men for their lives and untimely and disturbing deaths that do sometimes create a sense of long-term societal loss, but do not spark an immediate societal tremor. For instance, some have suggested that assassination of the Kennedy brothers did have a lingering depressive effect on American political life, possible culminating in the cynical demagoguery of Donald Trump.

 

Sometimes, events rather than persons, can have an iconic impact as was the case with the Rex Cinema in relation to the 1978 Iran Revolution or the reaction to the Gaza collision of an IDF truck with a car in Jabalia Refugee Camp killing four Palestinian passenger, and sparking the First Intifada in 1987. Whether persons or incidents, the iconic dimension arises because of underlying circumstances rather than by design. The 1960s public self-immolations of Buddhist monks in Saigon tried deliberately to give death a sense of iconic urgency in reaction to the growing American military presence in country. Some close observers felt that the fate of the Saigon regime and the Vietnam War was decided by these ultimate acts of individual self-sacrifice, modes of protest with an iconic resonance in a Buddhist cultural setting that would not be experienced by comparable religious expressions of resistance in the West.

 

This interest in iconic deaths, and recourse to this terminology, is to achieve a better understanding of non-incremental change in underlying political circumstances where normal channels of change have failed to address perceived injustices. Such circumstances can simmer for decades, and even longer, until a raging fire breaks out unexpectedly, and an iconic death becomes the animating cause. Of a different nature is the iconic death of RBG that has an almost coincidental historic significance because of peculiar existing conditions of the constitutional system that create a strong temporary incentive to change the course of national history, an opportunity that might be lost if not acted upon with a ruthless sense of immediacy. Such a death gives insight into the character of the American political and governmental system more than to the dynamics of change.