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Archive | Commentary

London’s Unrest, When War Came Home

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Remnants of the Carpetright store in Tottenham, London. Photo: Alan Stanton

War came to Britain’s streets this past week in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and other urban centers.

Remnants of the Carpetright store in Tottenham, London. Photo: Alan Stanton

The country had seen protests against the Iraq war, cuts in pensions for local government employees and teachers, and against dramatic increases in student tuition fees. The events of recent days, however, signify the worst social unrest in a generation. It is a reminder of the 1980s, when urban riots shook British society to its core. Thirty years ago, racism in the inner cities was rampant. The Labour government had fallen and the political left was utterly demoralized. Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, champion of ultra-rightwing economic theories and political soulmate of Ronald Reagan, had assumed office, determined to confront the unions she saw as the main cause of social evils. Thatcher, with her Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe and Industry Secretary Keith Joseph, was administering shock therapy to the country.

Thatcher’s shock doctrine was applied in the form of drastic cuts in benefits for the unemployed, the sick, the elderly. Public services were slashed, privatization of many services followed, as did high interest rates in the fight against inflation. Many in the workforce were losing hope. Economic and social turmoil ensued. There were street riots in deprived inner-city areas suffering the brunt of Thatcherite policies.

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Gaza. Somalia. Humanity lives On

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Muslims praying

I remember how exhilarated I felt when I was told I was old enough to fast for the month of Ramadan.

Muslims praying

My feelings had little to do with abstention from food and drink between dawn and sunset each day. For a child, there is little joy in that. The meaning and implications for me were much greater. I believed that the occasion signaled I had now become a man. I wanted to share this news with all my brothers, friends and neighbors. Three days into the fast, lethargy set it. The end seemed near. Although I fared well in my first attempt at fasting for an entire month, I had my weak and reprehensible moments. I hid in dark corners with my favorite snacks: a cucumber, a tomato, a loaf of pita bread. To be caught would be shameful and degrading, a regression back into childhood, a terrible example to my younger siblings, and a ripe topic of ridicule from my older brothers.

Ramadan in a Gaza refugee camp is an entirely different experience from Ramadan anywhere else. A malnourished population of impoverished refugees abstains from food and gives endless thanks for life’s fortunes. The irony didn’t escape me then, as it doesn’t escape me now. The imam of our refugee camp’s Great Mosque would spend much time thanking Allah for his numerous gifts. Hands extended to the sky, and faces lowered to the ground, the faithful would repeat in impressive unison: “Amen.” Even as Israeli helicopters buzzed above their heads and military vehicles speed nearby, the faithful kept their faces lowered. Even as the smell of gunpowder and teargas poisoned the atmosphere, their hands stayed extended. “Alhamdulillah,” said the Imam. Thanks to God. And the crowd repeated, “Amen.”

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September 11, Collateral Damage and the Raw Foods Retreat

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World Trade Center memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. Photo: Rebecca Wilson

Six women, attendees at an upstate raw foods retreat, sat cross-legged on cedar planks in a cedarwood sauna near a pond.

World Trade Center memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. Photo: Rebecca Wilson

We were laughing and telling stories of our lives. It was pure fun and friendship. Many logs had been thrown on the sauna fire. The sauna was very hot. We were sweating profusely. I was looking forward to jumping into the pond. Then I noticed that Marisa, an artist, slim, dark, quiet, soft voiced, gentle, sitting opposite me, appeared to be in distress. She was coughing, low, painful hacks that hurt to hear. We had been told that the sauna’s high heat would relax the body…that it was healthy. Also, that heat would encourage us to sweat out the toxins. So perhaps the coughing was positive? Like Mulder and Scully, we wanted to believe. Certainly some toxins appeared to be emerging. Marisa kept surreptitiously wiping her hands, mouth and face. She did not want to have any fuss made over her. But we couldn’t ignore her or the coughing. At length, she told us her story.

Marisa was one of the “collateral damage” victims of 9/11. She had had a studio near Ground Zero. The collapse of the Twin Towers, like an earthquake, had strewn chaos and debris over acres of land around Ground Zero. For a long time her studio was so deeply buried in the wreckage that she and the other tenants could not get back into their offices. Now, however, she said, the building management had informed her that the rubble had been cleared and the building had been cleaned by an industrial firm. The air quality had been tested and found to be “acceptable.” It was, they said, safe for the tenants to go back in and work.

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Friedrich Hegel and Radical Extremists

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Oslo, six days after the attack by Anders Behring Breivik. Photo: Eirik Newth

The correlational dichotomy between words and deeds is as old as history itself, ranging from Alexander the Great reading the Iliad, which supposedly inspired him to conquer the world, to the disturbing image of Nietzsche’s writings inspiring Hitler’s crazed fantasies.

Oslo, six days after the attack by Anders Behring Breivik. Photo: Eirik Newth

A more positive example is Abraham Lincoln seeking inspiration in the King James Bible and in Shakespeare to understand the nature of politics. Political men in this context should be read as men of action (including radicals). Leo Strauss, in his work, Introduction to Political Philosophy, summarizes the predicament succinctly by stating that every political writer bears some responsibility for political actions just as the political actor––as an individual––bears responsibility for his deeds, “In a sense, all political use of Nietzsche is a perversion of his teaching. Nevertheless, what he said was read by political men and inspired them. He is as little responsible for fascism as Rousseau is responsible for Jacobinism. This means, however, that he is as much responsible for fascism as Rousseau was for Jacobinism.”

The crucial question is, of course, the interpretation of words. Political radicals do not need to pore over thousands of pages of philosophical text to come to a conclusion on any perceived political malaise; their narrow extremism fosters the amputation of a single word or phrase––preferably taken out of context––that can be inserted into their perverted Weltanschauung to justify violence.

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Ground Your Warplanes, Save the Horn of Africa

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Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Photo: Daniel Dickinson

“When you are hungry, cold is a killer, and the people here are starving and helpless.” – Batula Moalim

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Photo: Daniel Dickinson

Not many of us can relate to such a statement, but millions of ‘starving and helpless’ people throughout the Horn of Africa know fully the pain of elderly Somali mother. Moalim, quoted by the British Telegraph, was not posing as spokesperson to the estimated 11 million people (per United Nations figures) who are currently in dire need of food. About 440,000 of those affected by the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster” dwell in a state of complete despair in Dadaab, a complex of three camps in Kenya. Imagine the fate of those not lucky enough to reach these camps, people who remain chronically lacking in resources, and, in the case of Somalia, trapped in a civil war. All that Batula Moalim was pleading for was “plastic sheeting for shelter, as well as for food and medicine.”

It is disheartening, to say the least, when such disasters don’t represent an opportunity for political, military or other strategic gains, subsequently, enthusiasm to ‘intervene’ peters out so quickly. UN officials from the World Food Programme (WFP) are not asking for much: $500 million to stave off the effects of what is believed to be the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years. This is not an impossible feat, especially when one considers the geographic extent of the drought and creeping famine. Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya are all affected, and terribly so. Sudan and Eretria are also not far from the center of this encroaching disaster.

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Tiger Troubles

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Prior to the arrival of the now defunct and rather ominous tiger that mysteriously found it’s way into Ireland in the mid 1990′s, Ireland was in possession of a much more valuable offering to the outside world and that rather priceless offering was “Celtic pride.”

Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaks with French President Francois Hollande during the EU Budget summit at the European Council in Brussels. Source: European Council

Every year a bounty of tourists from all corners of the globe would flock to the little island of the green to savor a wee taste of the mystical Irish charm - a gift bestowed upon the ancient Celts by the Gods, in exchange for them to never complain about the rainy weather. Now that the tiger has high-tailed it to only God knows where and who even knows if indeed he will ever set foot in Ireland again - or want to for that matter - Ireland is left to pick up the pieces from an era lost to the unfaithful promise of wealth, prosperity and future bliss. All would not be lost if indeed Ireland could somehow trace itself and it’s people back to the pre-tiger years. But when you have been fooled into believing that so much was yours, and now all of that is gone, it’s never going to be easy to ask or to expect a nation of people to smile and pretend like the last seventeen years or so never existed.

It was all too real to be mistaken for a dream - it’s definitely a nightmare now. The biggest problem facing Irish life today, as everyone there is so desperately struggling to make sense of the financial mess that most Irish people have found themselves in - is their unwillingness to take on any of the blame for their own false illusions of wealth. They simply lived and spent way beyond their means. To this day, most Irish people will tell you that it was the banks and property developers that got Ireland into the present mess that it finds itself in. A deep-rooted bitterness and a most alarming lack of pride to be Irish is what today’s young Irish have adopted and chosen to portray to anyone who is still interested enough to notice.

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Living in an Age of Violence

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Just after the invasion of Iraq, historian Eric Hobsbawm noted there being an unprecedented world situation.

Oslo, Norway shortly after the mass shooting by Anders Behring Breivik. Photo: Dmitry Valberg

The great global empires of the past, Hobsbawm wrote, bear little comparison with the present United States empire. A key novelty of the American imperial project is that all other empires knew that they were not the only ones. Nor did they aim at global domination. However, the demise of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only superpower. The emergence of a ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power in the post-Soviet world is hard to understand, he wrote, all the more so since “it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies nor the interests of the US economy.”

Despite this, a public assertion of supremacy by military force was dominant in the policymakers’ thinking in Washington. The question Hobsbawm asked was whether it was likely to succeed. Apart from nationalistic passions witnessed in times of war, there are several myths associated with this industrial-scale killing and destruction. That war is “good for the economy” and “good for population control” are among most often heard.

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The Viking in Corporate America

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With just cause, a recent spate of journalism has deplored the absence of culpable Wall Street executives in federal jail cells across America.

Traders work in the oil options pit at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Richard Drew/AP

Major investment banks perpetrated systemic fraud against the public and wrecked consumer confidence in the credit and housing markets, contributing to the 2008 financial meltdown; yet, their most complicit leaders still do business, uncounted, uncharged, and unpunished. Government regulators and lawyers often explain the delayed justice. Legal cases against major investment banks, they hold, require sharply drawn lines of evidence; common-law fraud claims, for example, require demonstration of criminal intent. Federal regulators, moreover, hate to approve bailouts to big banks and watch that recovery money pay legal fees rather than create new jobs. Prosecutorial zeal against mortgage-bundling banks also discredits the efforts of well-intentioned federal housing officials to boost home ownership rates.

Historically, few executive corporate malefactors have evaded justice as skillfully as the class of 2008. Enforcement and punishment has waned since the late 1980s, when prosecution of banks responsible for the saving and loan crisis sent more than 800 officials to jail. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse records that in 1995, bank regulators referred 1,837 cases to the Justice Department; in 2006, that tally declined to 75; from 2006 to 2010, an average of 72 cases a year have been referred to Justice for prosecution. The 2002 Enron meltdown resulted in a twenty-four year jail sentence for company president Jeffrey Skilling.

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Venezuela’s Oil Sword

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Reuters
Reuters

Reuters

This week, the U.S. slammed Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA with sanctions in an attempt to deter its trade with Iran. “Sanctions against the Fatherland of Bolivia? Imposed by the Gringo imperialist? Well, welcome Mr. Obama, don’t forget we are the children of Bolivar!” responded Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez via his Twitter account.

Chavez has long antagonized the United States, and the sanctions he faces are nominal. As an energy economist would say, they’ve been factored into the cost of business. The back-and-forth is expected and therefore inconsequential to oil markets. It’s the uncertain quantity and quality of Venezuela’s oil reserves that keep U.S. foreign policy analysts and energy forecasters up at night. Like Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, PDVSA operates behind a cloak of secrecy. The Venezuelan constitution strictly forbids foreign investment in upstream oil activities. U.S. oil companies ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips exited Venezuela in 2007 due to nationalization reforms.

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How Osama bin Laden Brought Me to Shul

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Osama Bin Laden was a dark man with dark thoughts whose blind obsession with hate poisoned relations between Muslims in Jews.

New Yorkers celebrating near Ground Zero in New York City upon hearing of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces. Photo: Dan Nguyen

On September 11, 2001, I was walking out of first period when the first tower was struck in New York City. Two hours later, our math teacher would announce the news to us. “If you pray, pray. America is under attack.” But Osama’s bid to divide the world between Muslims and “infidels” led Muslims everywhere to seek out solutions to extremism in our religion. For me, the solution was clear: engage the Jewish community.

Jewish Americans were in shock after 9/11, but many were also prepared. Israel, the Jewish state, is the world’s most terrorized nation in history. But it is also the home of America’s largest expatriate community. That close, inseparable connection to Israel is what helped the Jewish Community in America know how to respond on 9/11. Many Jewish community leaders had been to Israel during the worst of Palestinian terror campaigns the mid-90s, and had first hand experience dealing with terrorism, its victims, and its perpetrators.

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Osama bin Laden’s Death Gives the U.S. a Hard-Fought Victory

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President Obama announced to a stunned but elated American television audience that Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for a number of attacks against American and Western interests, including the September 11, 2001 attacks, has been killed deep inside Pakistan.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Pete Souza/White House

Shortly after 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, President Obama announced from the East Room of the White House, “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

Several dozen Navy SEALS in four Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters ascended on a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, near Islamabad, Pakistan. In the spate of 40 minutes a firefight ensued that killed Osama bin Laden, a known Al Qaeda courier and one of bin Laden’s adult sons. No American was killed or injured in the raid and a helicopter that experienced mechanical problems was destroyed. Following Islamic tradition and practice that a body must be buried within 24 hours, bin Laden has been buried at sea, according to U.S. officials.

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Justice Denied for Mukhtar Mai

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In April, Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck a death knell to the rights of women in a country whose rape rates jumped by double digits last year.

Mukhtar Mai, Pakistan rape victim

In the face of overwhelming evidence, hundreds of witnesses, and even a signed confession, the court, all men, acquitted five out of the six men convicted of the gang rape of a lone woman. The decision marked a bitter end to the victim’s decade long struggle for justice, during which time she endured harassment, illegal detainment, and psychological torture.

Today, I write as a Pakistani mother’s son to voice my outrage over Mukhtar Mai’s case. This story is personal for me, and is personal for all sons who have mothers, and all brothers who have sisters. The story of Mukhtar Mai is that of all women-and men-who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence.

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UN Arms Trade Treaty faces an Uncertain Future

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In 2010 the Obama administration reversed the official policy of the U.S. and offered its support to a Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, which would spell out the details of a UN Arms Trade Treaty.

The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre speaking before CPAC conference. Photo: Gage Skidmore

However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a caveat. The U.S. would support the talks as long as they operated on consensus. Clinton said at the time that the talks must operate “under the rules of consensus decision-making…Consensus is needed to ensure the widest possible support for the Treaty and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly.”

Because a number of states on the UN Security Council also happen to be large arms exporters the guidelines offered by the U.S. could provide Russia and China the ability to veto any final Treaty if they view the Treaty as detrimental to their ability to continue to export significant amounts of small arms to other countries. Debbie Hillier of Oxfam International said at the time, “Governments must resist US demands to give any single state the power to veto the treaty as this could hold the process hostage during the course of negotiations. We call on all governments to reject such a veto clause.”

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Reconsidering Sovereignty

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“Externally, sovereignty is the entry ticket into the society of states. Recognition on the part of other states helps to ensure territorial integrity and is the entree into participating in diplomacy and international organizations on an equal footing with other states.” – Eric Brahm, 2004

President Barack Obama chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

While sovereignty does serve the global system reasonably well, situations in Libya question its effectiveness. Particularly, whether the UN should have the ultimate authority to prevent intervention by external actors regarding sovereign nations or if regional institutions should be able to act without a UN resolution on the use of force. Except for Benghazi, Qaddafi has retaken significant portions of Libya that had been seized by rebels in the first weeks of the uprising and is poised to complete his military campaign. Rebel leaders are decrying the lack of inaction by the international community and there have been suggestions that the West should act unilaterally and impose a no-fly zone. Despite the appetite of some to pursue a no-fly zone, they are notoriously difficult to expedite.

International law explains that in order for a no-fly zone to be executed the UN Security Council would have to approve it. If the U.S., France or the U.K. were to unilaterally execute a no-fly zone this would violate norms of non-intervention and international law. Military actions would violate Libyan sovereignty. The UN Security Council was created to mitigate against this. Following World War II, the international system surmised that the Security Council would minimize the chances of conflict between states. Because Russia and China oppose a no-fly zone, unless the U.S. and others are willing to violate international law and the norm of non-intervention than a no-fly zone will not happen. China and Russia ostensibly oppose a violation of Libyan sovereignty because, according to Joshua Keating, they comprise the “sovereignty caucus.”

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