Can the U.S. take action to protect Aleppo?


Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier write: Aleppo is an emergency, requiring emergency measures. Are we no longer capable of emergency action? It is also an opportunity, perhaps the last one, to save Syria. Aleppo is the new Sarajevo, the new Srebrenica, and its fate should be to the Syrian conflict what the fate of Sarajevo and Srebrenica were to the Bosnian conflict: the occasion for the United States to bestir itself, and for the West to say with one voice, “Enough.” It was after Srebrenica and Sarajevo — and after the air campaign with which the West finally responded to the atrocities — that the United States undertook the statecraft that led to the Dayton accords and ended the war in Bosnia.

The conventional wisdom is that nothing can be done in Syria, but the conventional wisdom is wrong. There is a path toward ending the horror in Aleppo — a perfectly realistic path that would honor our highest ideals, a way to recover our moral standing as well as our strategic position. Operating under a NATO umbrella, the United States could use its naval and air assets in the region to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border and make clear that it would prevent the continued bombardment of civilians and refugees by any party, including the Russians. [Continue reading…]

Any military strategy that’s designed “to recover our moral standing” is dubious — and not simply because there are those who doubt that the U.S. possessed much the moral standing in the first place.

The effectiveness of a military strategy can’t be assessed on the basis of the worthiness of its non-military goals.

The authors in their sweeping assertion that they are offering “a perfectly realistic path,” dodge the awkward details on how this would work.

Are they assuming that once the boundaries of this no-fly zone had been defined, Russian and Syrian aircraft would then obediently comply?

Or do they assume that as soon as a few jets had been shot down the intended lesson would have swiftly been learned?

Turkey already shot down a Russian jet on the edge of this arena. What lessons, if any, have been drawn from that incident and are they now being applied to this future scenario?

“If the Russians and Syrians sought to prevent humanitarian protection and resupply of the city, they would face the military consequences,” we are told by the armchair generals.

“Military consequences” is a phrase of political bluster — especially when coming from two writers who profess no military expertise. If pressed to spell out what these military consequences might be, I expect Ignatieff and Wieseltier would defer to the actual generals.

My point here is not to dismiss the idea that at this late hour there might be a constructive military intervention in Syria, but simply to say that such an argument needs more detail and substance and fewer passionate declarations. It needs to credibly show how this would work rather than simply why it should be undertaken.

Currently, Obama administration officials are cynically curtailing all discussion about their military options by claiming that they only have two choices: start World War III or do essentially nothing (beyond repeating their mantra that their is no military solution in Syria).

“What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?” John Kerry is reported to have asked a Syrian NGO representative in London last week.

The choice is false but it is gladly being picked up by ideological anti-interventionists who are attracted by the rhetorical utility of this device when offered to those who have little interest in questioning its validity.

To those who insist on framing this crisis in terms of World War III, I would ask two questions: What makes you think it hasn’t already begun? And why do you think its defining attribute necessarily involves a clash between the U.S. and Russia?

A world war involves global instability and a contagion of violent conflict. There are active conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Libya. There is unrest in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere.

As the EU struggles to handle the refugee crisis, European unity is being fractured, placing its future in jeopardy.

If through the power of inattention, Americans could indeed successfully insulate themselves from the effects of global strife, then perhaps this could endure as a land of blissful ignorance.

Instead, what is more predictable is that the more disengaged the U.S. becomes, the less influence it will have and the fewer options it can consider.

No one will benefit from America’s self-imposed paralysis.


Putin, Assad, and the nexus of torture and terror


Last October, Patrick Cockburn welcomed the arrival of Russian forces in Syria, suggesting that the “intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war”. He wrote:

Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally.

Posturing as a neutral observer, Cockburn no doubt preferred the language of “de-escalation” rather than military solutions, yet having noted that “Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions,” he could hardly have been surprised by the massive onslaught on Aleppo over the last few days.

After Obama’s hollow demands for Assad’s departure, Washington has now moved towards what almost amounts to a quiet alliance with the regime by shutting down what was left of a meager weapons supply to rebel groups.

As Emile Hokayem writes:

Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.

The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.

Assad is far from being able to declare he has won the war, but he is close to winning the argument about how it gets framed.

He always claimed that he was fighting terrorism — deploying the rhetorical gift which neoconservatism freely bestowed on authoritarian rulers around the globe after 9/11 — and before long, it looks like this is how the war in Syria will neatly be defined: the regime vs ISIS and al Qaeda. And that’s a fight Assad has no interest in winning.

Nevertheless, it’s worth being reminded why the continuation of Assad’s rule should not be mistaken as a harbinger of peace. If a year or two from now, violence no longer rains down from the sky in the form of barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes, it will most likely continue without restraint in the domain where this regime has always exercised its ruthless power: by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering its opponents.

In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic,” a newly released report for the UN Human Rights Council, we learn:

Interrogators and guards employed gruesome methods of torture to kill detainees. In 2014, a detainee held in a centre under the control of the 4th Division of the Syrian army had his genitals mutilated during torture. Bleeding severely and left without treatment, he died three days later. A detainee of a Military Security branch in Homs witnessed an elderly man being severely beaten, and then hung by his wrists from the ceiling. The guards burned his eyes with a cigarette, and pierced his body with a heated, sharp metal object. After hanging in the same position for three hours, the man died.

Other detainees died as a result of injuries and wounds sustained during torture. Victims received little or no medical care to treat the wounds and developed severe infections that eventually led to their demise. In the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Aleppo, a detainee suffered severely from an infected wound in his leg sustained during torture. Unable to stand up, he was eventually placed in the corridor outside the cell, receiving no medical care. After a few days, fellow detainees observed that he was dead. His family was later able to obtain the body through unofficial channels. Due to marks of torture and the severe emaciation of his corpse, his family could first only recognise him by an identifying tag. A 15-year-old boy detained in 2013 by the 4th Division in a detention facility near Yafour (Rif Damascus) reported seeing several male detainees dying due to torture and inhuman prison conditions and denial of medical assistance.

A large number of deaths were caused by the squalid conditions in which detainees were kept. Prison conditions were similar across detention facilities. They included severely overcrowded cells where prisoners were often forced to stand and sleep in shifts, stripped to their underwear. Lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, lice infestations and other unhygienic conditions caused the spread of disease and infections. Many prisoners were forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.

Anyone who believes this is “the lesser of two evils” or the kind of toughness required for “stability,” is delusional.

On the contrary, this type of institutionalized violence has long had an instrumental role in fostering terrorism.


Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.


How popular are Britain First and its Islamophobic ‘Christian patrols’?


The Washington Post reports: It’s a video that depicts just the sort of civilizational clash that extremists everywhere crave: Christians walking down a central shopping street in Britain. Muslim storekeepers and passerby hurling verbal abuse. A push. More abuse from both sides. And finally, police intervening to keep the warring clans apart.

The video, a slick propaganda job by the virulently anti-Muslim group Britain First, became a viral hit when the organization posted it to its Facebook page, racking up millions of views.

But there was more to the story than what the video showed.

The video was filmed on Jan. 23 in the multicultural British town of Luton, 30 miles north of London. The town, a former industrial powerhouse that is today known for its budget-flight-focused airport, has become a magnet for both Islamist and Islamophobic extremists. It’s often the canvas upon which hate groups unfurl their provocative displays.

And so it was when Britain First came to town for the fourth time in two years for what it termed a “Christian Patrol.”

The group — a far-right rival of the homegrown English Defense League — specializes in anti-Muslim street theater, while dressing itself in the garb of a devoutly Christian organization. Members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms, and march with oversized crosses through Muslim-majority areas, or even through mosques. [Continue reading…]

The garb of a devoutly Christian organization whose members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms?

Would the Washington Post refer to the Ku Klux Klan as bearing the symbols of a devoutly Christian organization because — like Britain First — its members like to march carrying large crosses?

There’s no question that these knuckleheads and self-described defenders of British culture have as little right to speak in the name of Christianity as Anjem Choudary has to present himself as the voice of Islam. But easy as Paul Golding and his rowdy followers might be to dismiss, do they actually stand at the vanguard of a much wider but less visible movement stretching across Britain?

The Washington Post picked up this story because Britain First’s recent Luton video went viral, but how much political significance derives from social media popularity?

Britain’s Labour Party, now under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who enjoys more grass root support than he does in parliament, has a Facebook page with 422,000 likes.

Britain First’s Facebook page has 1,289,000 likes!

But what do all these “likes” actually mean?

Paul Golding probably thinks they mean a lot and this might explain why he felt confident enough to run in the upcoming election to become Mayor of London. Moreover, he probably thinks it’s imperative that he, or someone like him, be able to govern the British capital city given that his leading opponent, Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim.

The election will take place on May 5, and the most recent YouGov poll gives Khan a clear lead (45%) over his closest rival, Zac Goldsmith (35%).

Further down the field comes George Galloway (Respect Party), who is just one point ahead of British National Party candidate, David Furness, who is himself, one point ahead of Golding.

That is to say, 1% of London voters say they support the BNP while 0% support Britain First.

Maybe the antics of Golding and his motley crew deserve less attention than does the promise of what would surely be a victory for multiculturalism: the increasingly likely election of London’s first Muslim mayor.


America shouldn’t remain indifferent to the crisis in Europe

Natalie Nougayrède writes: In 1947 George Marshall, the US secretary of state, went to Europe. He was shocked by what he saw: a continent in ruins, and rampant hunger. The mood in Paris, Berlin and other capitals was resigned and doom-laden. On returning to Washington, Marshall told President Truman that something dramatic needed to be done – and very soon. The initiative would have to come from Washington, he said.

On 5 June, in a speech to students at Harvard, Marshall announced his European recovery programme. It became, in the words of the British politician Ernest Bevin, “a lifeline to sinking men”. The Marshall plan not only helped Europe back on its feet, it laid the groundwork for the cooperation that ultimately led to the creation of the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor.

In Davos this week Joe Biden, the US vice-president, may well have had a shock similar to Marshall’s. Of course today’s gloom in Europe is not comparable to the devastation left by the second world war – but alarmist language is being heard all the same. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, has spoken of a risk of European “dislocation”. “Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” he said. Joachim Gauck, the German president, also used the word “tragic” when describing Europe’s difficulties over the refugee crisis.

Europe today is in such a shambles that it is not absurd to ask whether the US should again do something about it, or whether the old continent even matters to American strategic interests any more. The answer to both questions should be a resounding “yes”.

It is obviously unrealistic to think the US is likely to repeat the kind of assistance it deployed in 1947. But the US urgently needs to seriously re-engage on European matters. Failing that, it risks seeing the European project unravel, with more disorder pouring into and across the continent and, ultimately, the loss of key allies.

Europe is currently struggling with the danger of Brexit and major security threats (which include terrorism, and Russian aggression), as well as the political fallout of the refugee crisis. It’s not that US action in itself would miraculously solve all these problems, but its aloofness has arguably contributed to making them worse. [Continue reading…]

Update in response to comments: Natalie Nougayrède’s reference to the Marshall Plan seems to have led readers to conclude the lifeline she’s calling for is financial. After all, that’s what foreigners always do, isn’t it: beg for money from the U.S.!

Actually, her first appeal is for Obama to be forthright in making it clear that the U.S. has a strong interest in Britain remaining in the EU. The British naively and nostalgically cling on to the UK’s (one-sided) “special relationship” with the U.S.. A wake up call from Washington might alienate a few people, but I think they’d be outnumbered by those who recognized that this kind of counsel was well-intentioned and realistic. Moreover, departure from the EU would have much larger repercussions than diminishing the value of U.S.-UK relations. It may well lead to the rapid breakup of the UK as Scotland seeks swift independence so that it can remain in the EU.

How much would this piece of political engagement cost the U.S.? Nothing.

Second, she calls for “more US political leverage” in supporting a common European defense policy. Cost? Nothing.

Third, “the US cannot continue to treat the refugee crisis destabilising Europe as if it were a far-flung problem that doesn’t affect its direct interests. Around 4.5 million refugees have fled the Syrian civil war. The US has taken just 2,600.”

Refugees are not only fleeing from Syria but also Iraq and Afghanistan (and many other countries).

Instability across the Middle East cannot be attributed solely to American meddling and yet in the last two decades there was no single action that had a more destabilizing effect than the decision to invade Iraq.

Americans who supported the war and many of those who opposed it are now apparently unified in believing that, like a hit-and-run driver, the best course of action is to flee the scene of the crime.

Certainly, those who argue that America’s military interventions invariably seem misguided have plenty of evidence to support their argument.

But when it comes to the issue of helping Europe handle the refugee crisis, the primary impediment in the U.S. is not financial; it’s Islamophobic cowardice.

After the United States had finished carpet-bombing Vietnam and dousing its jungles with Agent Orange and the war’s failure had become undeniable, part of the aftermath of that unconscionable and delusional intervention was that there was sufficient decency in the U.S. to accept what eventually amounted to 1.3 million refugees settling here.

For the U.S. to now step up and welcome tens or even hundreds of thousands more refugees from the Middle East is not to make some unreasonable demand on American generosity. It’s part of paying the price of war.

It’s one thing to argue in advance against meddling in the affairs of other countries and on that basis to promote a relatively benign insularity, but when the meddling has been rampant and long-running, then insularity is just another name for irresponsibility. The United States doesn’t have the option of becoming Switzerland.

Having said that, Nougayrède’s appeal here is less blaming and by no means strident: it is for the U.S. to recognize that it really does have a stake in Europe’s future and it should not remain a mute bystander watching the European project fall apart.

Is that too much to ask?


Behind disputed views of Jewish identity looms a much larger question about the future of inclusive societies

The Guardian reports: The US State Department has moved to back America’s ambassador to Israel in a febrile and escalating row over his remarks on Monday that Israel applied law in the occupied West Bank differently to Palestinians and Israelis.

Ambassador Daniel Shapiro’s unusually critical comments drew harsh criticism from ministers in Israel’s rightwing government – including from the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Shapiro was also publicly lambasted on Israeli television on Tuesday by a former aide to Netanyahu who used the deeply offensive Hebrew word “yehudon” – which translates as “little Jew boy” – to disparage the ambassador. The term is used by rightwing Israelis against other Jews – particularly those in the diaspora – whom they regard as not being sufficiently Jewish or pro-Israel. [Continue reading…]

The remarks by Aviv Bushinsky, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s governmen, are reminiscent of an incident reported by the Washington Post in 1997.

U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, still seething at a two-week-old slur, ran into his accuser Thursday and fixed him with a glare. According to Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party member of Israel’s legislature, this is what happened next:

“The last time someone called me a Jew boy,” Indyk said, harking back to school days in Australia, “I was 15 years old and he got a punch in the face.”

A right-wing legislator, Rehavam Zeevi, had indeed called Indyk a yehudon — Hebrew invective translated variously as “Jew boy,” “yid,” or “kike” — at a parliamentary caucus late last month. He looked up from his seat at a memorial service for the late Yitzhak Rabin and glared back at Indyk. “Try me,” Zeevi replied. Then, taunting Indyk, he added distinctly: “yehudon, yehudon.”

Zeevi, a retired general who is chief of the ultranationalist Moledet (Homeland) party, apparently meant to say that Indyk, the first Jewish U.S. ambassador here, betrayed his coreligionists by pressuring the Israeli government for concessions in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Zeevi’s political platform, the most extreme of any party in the parliament, calls for expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank to make room for Jews.

A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most famous novelists, has for many years been among the most vocal in promoting this view that Jews who remain living outside Israel are only, as he says, “partial Jews.”

But instead of being preoccupied with where Jews plant their bodies, he and those who share his views, might consider where the Jewish conscience may better thrive.

In 2003, Avraham Burg, former member of the Knesset, a chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a Speaker of the Knesset, who was born in Jerusalem, wrote:

It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents’ shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.

It is very comfortable to be a Zionist in West Bank settlements such as Beit El and Ofra. The biblical landscape is charming. From the window you can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvilleas and not see the occupation. Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem’s northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip that skirts barely a half-mile west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it’s hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied.

This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won’t work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism’s superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing.

As much as all of this might sound purely like a struggle over Jewish identity, it mirrors an affliction in which people across the globe withdraw into their various ethnic, religious, or ideological ghettos of identification and their cherished definitions of my people.

The testing ground for challenging this trend is now Europe.

Last year, Burg wrote:

In a generation in which we Israelis have forgotten how to be sensitive and empathetic to minorities, to those who are different, to the persecuted, and many American Jews are swallowed up in their comfort zones of white society and are abandoning their partnership with the “others,” in America, the “United States of Europe” is presenting a new model of identity – a union between those who are different, and the “other.” It’s a model no different from the American one which seeks to assimilate all into a monochromatic American democracy.

Further, Europe is the current meeting point between Islam and the West. Some of that encounter involves clashes, and some involves learning. The Christian continent is learning to make space for other, rich and varied identities. My friends, Ziya from Bangladesh, Shaida whose family is from Turkey and Rob from Jamaica, are impressive Europeans, and Europe is better off with them. Just like Shaul from Venice, Yoop from Amsterdam and Brian from London – there is no dissonance between their Jewish heritage and their European identity. The discourse between white, Christian Europe and those who are different is fascinating. More important is the dialogue between Western Europe and the Muslim forces in its midst.

The Muslim world and some of its members are embarking on a long journey toward the Western values of freedom, equality and brotherhood. The institutionalization of Western Islam in the heart of Europe – that which is absorbing values of democracy while remaining true to Muslim tradition – is where the strategic potential exists for bridging the gaps peacefully in the generations to come. It’s not happening in the Middle East or North America, but only in Europe. That is where the vanguard of humanity and humaneness is to be found.

Since Burg wrote this, the vision of Europe has become profoundly challenged by an expanding refugee crisis, acts of terrorism, growing nationalism, cultural protectionism, and the drumbeats of xenophobia and Islamophobia.

Both in Europe and the U.S., it often seems like the political momentum favors those who promote retreat in its various forms — through strengthening borders, heightened national security, and disengagement from foreign affairs.

At the same time, the inexorable global trends point in the opposite direction as populations expand and people choose or are compelled to cross borders.

In such a world, the task of building more inclusive societies is not an idealistic goal; it has become an urgent necessity.


How to create a better politics

I didn’t watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but news reports alerted me to this passage:

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

It’s easy to view politics as a marketplace in which trading is taking place as competing constituencies haggle over power. From that perspective, the only question is which group best represents your interests and if no such group exists, politics then becomes a dull spectator sport. Such a marketplace is inevitably dominated by the loudest voices.

Even if that characterization is reasonably accurate, it is likely to have a constricting effect.

Politics seen as jostling power groups, makes those groups into somewhat static entities and it saps a spirit of inquiry.

If the activity of asking and answering questions — an activity that needs to be driven by curiosity — seems pointless, it gets replaced by a much less constructive exercise: the solidification of opinion through affiliation.

In other words, politics is reduced to the question of who you want to stand with and who you stand against.

In the Republican response to Obama’s speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said:

Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.

It would be easy to dismiss these appeals from Obama and Haley to reduce the level of rancor in politics as simply calls for a cosmetic change — as though politics can be reformed by making it more pleasant. But I don’t think these calls for a tone change should be trivialized.

The dynamic at issue is driven by the cycle of attention-seeking and attention-giving.

Donald Trump’s success has had less to do with either his financial independence or his alignment with a large segment of the population, than it has with his skill in co-opting the services of the mass media.

He took reality TV to the next level (cliche intended) by turning a presidential campaign into a form of mass entertainment. Trump supporters commonly say that a significant part of his appeal is that they find him entertaining. The tedium of politics has been turned into a raucous circus with Trump as ringmaster.

He couldn’t have done this without the help of a media which salivates at each and every opportunity to boost ratings and make more money.

Ultimately, this is an issue of American values. If creating wealth is the axis around which American life turns, then the media will inevitably function like every other branch of commerce.

The health of any society, however, requires a balance between self-interest and collective interests.

If government, the legal system, the media, education, medicine, and the arts, are controlled by commerce then we all end up as the slaves of profit.


Scientists who give science a bad name


According to theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, gravitational waves “may have been discovered!!”

The earlier rumor Krauss referred to was this:

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — a project involving more than 900 scientists. Krauss isn’t one of them.

Following Krauss’s tweet in September, LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González, a physicist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, told Davide Castelvecchi she was “upset at the possibility that someone in the LIGO team might have initiated the rumour, although Krauss and other researchers told me [DC] that they did not hear it directly from members of the LIGO collaboration. ‘I give it a 10–15% likelihood of being right,’ says Krauss, who works at Arizona State University in Tempe.”

Krauss has now boosted his confidence level to 60% — a surprisingly high level given that he says this:

“I don’t know if the rumour is solid,” Krauss told the Guardian. “If I don’t hear anything in the next two months, I’ll conclude it was false.”

González now tells Ian Sample at The Guardian:

“The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyse, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet.

“We take pride in reviewing our results carefully before submitting them for publication – and for important results, we plan to ask for our papers to be peer-reviewed before we announce the results – that takes time too!” she said.

At this point, it seems like the story might reveal more about Lawrence Krauss than it says about gravitational waves.

What makes Krauss’s excitement so uncontainable when the news will definitely come out — if and when there is news — without his help?

Scientists have a duty to fulfill a role as public educators and there has never before been a time when this need has been greater. To a degree this is an evangelical role, but as with every other individual who assumes such a position, each is at risk of becoming intoxicated by the reverential respect they receive from their audience as message and messenger become intertwined.

This may then lead to an over-extension of authority — exactly what Krauss and fellow scientists who dub themselves antitheists are guilty of when they make pronouncements about religion.

Here’s Krauss on religion and xenophobia:

Last night, The Guardian reports:

More than 200 far-right extremists have been arrested after they went on a rampage during a xenophobic rally in the German city of Leipzig, setting cars on fire and smashing windows.

Many of the extremists were already known to police as football hooligans and wrought chaos on Monday in an area known to be left-leaning, while thousands of supporters of the anti-migrant Pegida movement held an anti-refugee demonstration elsewhere in the city, authorities said.

A total of 211 arrests were made after the Connewitz district of the eastern city was attacked, police confirmed.

Are we to view this as a modern-day crusade in which German Christians purge their fatherland of the invading Muslim hordes?

On the contrary, I doubt very much that many (or perhaps even any) of those involved would be particularly ardent in expressing any religious faith. What is likely beyond doubt is that they were all white.

Xenophobia is generally a form of racism and the xenophobes don’t close ranks on the basis of theological quizzing — they can identify their cohorts and their enemies simply through the color of their skin.

When religion and racism intermingle, the underpinning of the racism is much less likely to be found in religious doctrine itself than it is on prevalent affiliations based on racial, national and cultural identity.

If as they claim, the antitheists want to rescue humanity from religion because of its irrationality, why focus on religion alone? There are many other forms of irrational behavior that are equally if not more destructive.

For instance, the religion in modernity which through advertising relentlessly promotes more widespread and unquestioning faith than that found in any conventional religion, is consumerism: the belief that the acquisition of material goods is the key to human happiness.

You are what you own — I know of no other idea that is more irrational and yet holds such a firm grip on so much of humanity.

This religion has grown more rapidly and more extensively than any other in human history and in the process now jeopardizes the future of life on Earth.

In terms of doctrine, most conventional religions oppose materialism. As the Bible says:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal.

The antitheists are going to say this is a bad investment because heaven doesn’t exist, but in doing so they devalue the ecological wisdom contained in such religious efforts to rein in human avarice.

The core criticism of religion is directed at its appeal to beliefs that have no empirical foundation and yet what’s strange about focusing on doctrine is that it glosses over the gulf between belief and practice.

Arguably, the destructive impact of religion derives mostly from the fact that so many believers fail to practice what they profess. They situate the locus of meaning in the wrong place by thinking, this is who I am, rather than this is how I live. In so doing, they inhabit identity traps: static forms of self-definition that obscure the dynamic and interactive nature of human experience.

On this issue, Lawrence Krauss and others could learn a lot from Neil deGrasse Tyson:


From Tailhook to Cologne — the patterns in sexual violence


On New Year’s Eve, as many as 1,000 young men who according to police and witnesses were of north African and Arab appearance, took part in mass sexual violence and assaults on women outside the railway station in the German city of Cologne. BBC News reports that more than 100 women and girls have come forward with reports of sexual assault and robbery.

One victim, named as Busra, spoke of a sense of lawlessness outside the station, where the attackers felt they could do as they pleased.

“They felt like they were in power and that they could do anything with the women who were out in the street partying,” she said.

“They touched us everywhere. It was truly terrible.”

One of the most obvious parallels that is now being drawn is with the mass sexual assaults in Cairo that, as The Guardian reported in 2013, “have been endemic at Tahrir protests since at least the 2011 revolution”.

An internal report by Germany’s national police, the Bundespolizei, obtained by Der Spiegel, lists police officers’ experiences including one who quoted a suspect as saying: “I’m a Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Mrs. Merkel invited me.”

Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, has drawn scorn by suggesting that young women and girls need to protect themselves by adopting a code of conduct which includes, as The Independent reports, “maintaining an arm’s length distance from strangers, to stick within your own group, to ask bystanders for help or to intervene as a witness, or to inform the police if you are the victim of such an assault.”

As the accounts of victims of the attacks make clear, such a code would have been impossible to adopt on New Year’s Eve:

One woman, whose identity has been protected, told German television how gangs of men assaulted her in the crowd.

“All of a sudden these men around us began groping us,” she said. “They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere.

“So my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body.”

She said she felt in extreme danger, but there were no police officers to help.

“I thought to myself that if we stay here in this crowd they could kill us, they could rape us and nobody would notice. I thought we simply had to accept it.

“There was no one around us who helped or was in a position to help. All I wanted was to get out.

“I was scared that I wouldn’t leave this crowd alive. I was scared that if someone showed up with a knife I could be raped in the middle of the street.”

In another account reported by BBC News, a 17-year-old British girl described what she witnessed:

I was at Cologne on New Year’s Eve with my boyfriend. Upon arriving at 10pm at the train station, I felt afraid the moment I saw the strange behaviour of the people around me.

The main station was full of wobbly teenagers and young adults, of all ages, some possibly below 18, very drunk and unaware of their whereabouts. Some had already passed out on the floor in their own vomit.

Bottles were smashed on the ground and you could feel shards of glass crunching beneath your feet with every step.

Fights had taken place in the station and police were trying to contain them, but the amount of fighting made it difficult for the police to focus on every individual dispute.

We walked towards the exit of the station towards the cathedral, only to be welcomed by a huge crowd blocking the exits.

We heard a woman screaming and crying somewhere in the midst of this crowd, appearing to be escaping from a foreign man, who was shouting back and pointing his finger at her and chasing her with his accomplices.

Later on, we saw two men corner women at the cathedral and touch them while they were screaming for help and trying to fight back.

For those in Europe and North America who want to gin up fears of immigrants and refugees, the events in Cologne will seem to demonstrate that their fears are warranted, that Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is justifiable, and that those of us who repeat the slogan, “refugees welcome!” are naive.

Understandably, the attacks have sent shock-waves through Germany.

In an interview by Human Rights Watch reporting on sexual violence in Egypt in 2013, a young man in typical Western attire with gelled hair, says: “It’s not a good habit, it’s wrong, but they [women] lead us to do this. From the way they dress. From the way they walk. Everything. They push Egyptian men to do this.”

A young woman, in hijab, says: “It has happened to me several times but I don’t always react, because I’m afraid of the reaction from the guy in front of me. And I’m afraid the people around me won’t back me up.”

Al Jazeera reported in 2014:

Many Egyptian men, including members of the police force, either downplay or shrug off sexual harassment, reflecting popular views that women either should remain at home or bring trouble on themselves by dressing provocatively if they go out on the street.

“She can’t go anywhere without me,” Capt. Ahmed Mahmoud, a police officer in a working-class Cairo neighborhood, told the Huffington Post in May, speaking about his wife. “If a woman is wearing provocative clothing, the change needs to come from her.”

If this blame-the-victim mentality represented a distinctive feature of Middle Eastern societies, it might be difficult to counter the arguments being made by those in the West who want to block the entry of refugees, especially young men.

The fact is, however, that a pandemic of sexual violence involves the same factors:

  • a sense of impunity among perpetrators
  • the perpetrators’ belief that their victims deserve to be abused
  • the expectation among victims that they have little chance of finding justice

The perpetrators of most of this violence are not mobs on the rampage; they are the victims’ own intimate partners.

Both on the streets and behind closed doors, alcohol is often a contributing factor.

A 2014 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights which found that an estimated 3.7 million women in the EU had been the targets of sexual violence during the preceding 12 months, noted:

Prevalence of physical and/or sexual violence by a current partner is also markedly higher among women whose partner gets drunk frequently. If a current partner is said never to drink, or never to drink so much as to get drunk, the prevalence of this type of violence was 5%. The prevalence climbs, however, to 23% for women whose current partner gets drunk once a month or more often.

In the 1991 Tailhook scandal involving the U.S. Navy and Marines, 83 women and seven men were victims of sexual assault and harassment. The 4,000 attendees in Las Vegas “viewed the annual conference as a type of ‘free fire zone’ wherein they could act indiscriminately and without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct or drunkenness,” according to a Pentagon investigation.

While cultural factors in sexual violence should not be ignored, there are ultimately two reasons why this kind of conduct is so commonplace:

  • the perpetrators know they can get away with it;
  • they know this because other men so often turn a blind eye.

Those who now claim that in defense of “our women” we need to guard against a foreign threat, are choosing to ignore the fact that the far more pervasive threat is much closer to home in the familiar face of a former boyfriend, an ex-husband, boyfriend, husband, father, step-father, brother, cousin, friend, or a neighbor.

Guys, the collective failure here is ours.


If the Berlin Wall had to come down and Trump’s shouldn’t go up, what makes Israel’s OK?


Following Trump’s logic and his imperative of vigilance, it sounds as though the world — just to be safe — can’t have too many walls.

In Europe the principle of open borders functioning in the Schengen Area is currently in peril.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the presidential election in the U.S. ends up being a contest between Trump and Clinton, it’s possible that Trump just defined the battle line in a useful way.

He obviously wants to use Israel’s wall to justify his own wall plans and he’s assuming that Clinton’s ties to Israel mean she wouldn’t dare question their security measures.

Nevertheless, Israel’s wall has symbolic significance that stretches far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been a broad consensus that the breakdown of divisions around the world has inherent value and the creation of divisions causes trouble.

While the value of this principle has most often been measured in economic terms and the rewards concentrated in the hands of powerful corporations, the human desire for people to be able to connect seems far greater than the need to stand apart.

Those who want to wall themselves in so they can keep others out are in a minority that perceives itself as embattled.

The walls supposedly designed to make people feel safe also solidify their fears.

The wall is both a metaphor and a literal expression of the conflict between inclusion and exclusion.

Have we reached a point in history where we must now reverse tracks and head back into the past — into a world defined by its rigid divisions? Would not such a world be anything less than a retreat from humanity?

No doubt, in a debate, Clinton would skirt around Israel’s wall — perhaps just by reiterating the official line that it is a temporary measure — but she could not pick a better theme around which to shape her campaign than by presenting herself as someone dedicated to breaking down divisions versus an opponent who is actively divisive.

Am I indulging in an internationalist liberal fantasy?

Perhaps. But however deeply entrenched divisiveness has become, unless we quickly learn how to shake it off, our common fate will be ruin.


Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.


Americans living in a fantasy world


Americans are famously ignorant about global geography. While many are apologetic about this deficit, it often gets waved off as a cultural gap that doesn’t really need filling — a bit like learning the metric system: useful in theory but something that most people are quite content to live without.

One of the latest widely cited examples speaks to the fact when it comes to acquiring knowledge about the world, the tutor that too many Americans rely on is Hollywood.

An editorial in Abu Dhabi’s The National (the English-language newspaper from the Gulf that mustn’t be called Persian) says:

A week of international ridicule over a poll that found about 30 per cent of Republican voters supported military aggression against the fictional Arab city of Agrabah has not sent the story away on a magic carpet. In a new poll conducted by WPA research, 44 per cent of Democratic voters questioned would support the United States taking in refugees from Agrabah, a made-up location from Disney’s Aladdin. Roughly 28 per cent said they were indifferent.

The latest poll sheds additional light on the mainstream American sentiment about the Middle East. It is clear that ignorance about the geography and people of the region extends across party lines.

It doesn’t just cut across party lines; it also unites some experts with those who naively view them as being reliably informed.

For instance, in an article on Clausewitz and ISIS that I posted here recently, David Johnson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, was quoted, saying:

If you go to Istanbul and look south the Caliphate is right there. You can point to it. It’s a state that views us as an enemy. What’s the mystery?

Before joining RAND, Johnson had a 24-year U.S. Army career “in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Korea, and Europe,” so maybe he never went to Istanbul. If he had, he should have known that if you look south you will see the Sea of Marmara and beyond that, the southern half of the Marmara region of Turkey.

The territory under ISIS’s control is nowhere near in sight, being hundreds of miles off to the east-southeast, beyond Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.

Call this an instance of matter-of-fact ignorance — which might be seen as an American specialty.

Ignorance is not a crime. Indeed, nothing is more important than recognizing the limits of ones knowledge if that knowledge is to be advanced. The worst mistake, however, is to imagine one knows (or be willing to pretend one knows) what one does not.

That is what leads to ill-conceived pronouncements on the fate of Agrabah and its imaginary residents.

Just imagine how much less raucous the internet would be (or how many more don’t knows pollsters would count) if everyone applied a bit more caution and discipline in differentiating between the known and the unknown, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and in acknowledging that what they may have chosen to repeat is merely hearsay.


Religious ownership and cultural appropriation


If there’s one thing I’m grateful for Donald Trump expressing, it’s his contempt for political correctness.

There is no value in sensitivity if it merely serves to mask bigotry.

Discourse in which, for instance, racism has been thoroughly expunged, turns out to be discourse in which racists can freely participate with much less risk of being challenged.

Trump is being disingenuous, of course, in claiming that he disavows political correctness, because it’s actually an indispensable tool in his art of deceit. He panders to and expresses his own Islamophobia when saying he’d stop Muslims entering the U.S. but at the same time, postures as Muslim-friendly by claiming he loves Muslims.

Political correctness is no substitute for honesty. Indeed, this has been its most corrosive effect: that it inhibits people from honestly expressing their views and exposing their prejudices.

Richard Falk picks up this theme when noting that in the U.S., in the name of being politically correct and culturally sensitive, many Americans avoid referring to Christmas in deference to non-Christians who don’t celebrate this holy day. Falk, however, gladly appropriates the word and in this celebration sees universal meaning.

As a Jew in America I feel the tensions of conflicting identities. I believe, above all, that while exhibiting empathy to all those have been victimized by tribally imposed norms, we need to rise above such provincialism (whether ethnic or nationalistic) and interrogate our own tribal and ‘patriotic’ roots. In this time of deep ecological alienation, when the very fate of the species has become precarious, we need to think, act, and feel as humans and more than this, as empathetic humans responsible for the failed stewardship of the planet. It is here that God or ‘the force’ can provide a revolutionary comfort zone in which we reach out beyond ourselves to touch all that is ‘other,’ whether such otherness is religious, ethnic, or gendered, and learning from Buddhism, reach out beyond the human to exhibit protective compassion toward non-human animate dimensions of our wider experience and reality. It is this kind of radical reworking of identity and worldview that captures what ‘the Christmas spirit’ means to me beyond the enjoyment of holiday cheer.

From this vantage point, the birth of Jesus can be narrated with this universalizing voice. The star of Bethlehem as an ultimate source of guidance and the three wise kings, the Maji, who traveled far to pay homage to this sacred child can in our time bestow the wisdom of pilgrimage, renewal, and transformation that will alone enable the human future to grasp the radical wisdom of St. Augustine’s transformative: “Love one another and do what thou wilt.” Put presciently in a poem by W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”

I referred to Falk appropriating Christmas, aware that there are Christians who might object to a Jew saying what Christmas means (even though Jesus was Jewish) and in order to raise the wider issue that seems to be popping up with unfortunate frequency: one of the bastard children of political correctness, cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a phrase that can usefully be applied in limited and rather obvious ways.

In 1992, when Hindu nationalists destroyed the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, they did so in the name of reclaiming the site of the birthplace of the god, Rama. This came 464 years after Muslim invaders had apparently destroyed a Hindu temple at this site. In the intervening period, Hindus and Muslims had both worshiped at the same location.

When conflicting parties with differing cultural identities each claim to own the same place and then alternately snatch it from one another, this can reasonably be described as cultural appropriation.

While each advocates its claim in the name of one divine authority or another, all are saying exactly the same thing: this is mine; it’s not yours.

But when someone in Los Angeles practices yoga in an effort to fine-tune a perfect body, does this degrade Indian culture? Have they claimed as their own, something that belongs to someone else? Not really.

The proliferation of yoga studios across America and the secularization of yoga by treating it as a form of fitness training, has done nothing to close off opportunities for people to explore yoga as a spiritual discipline or learn about its roots in Indian culture. Indeed, the fact that yoga has exported so easily is not because it got stolen by cultural plunderers, but because it comes out of a culture that fosters a universal sense of belonging.

As Michelle Goldberg writes:

India is a country of dizzying dynamism, one that has always eagerly absorbed elements from other cultures into its own while proudly sharing the best of its own culture with the world. “All humanity’s greatest is mine,” wrote poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. “The infinite personality of man (as the Upanishads say) can only come from the magnificent harmony of all human races. My prayer is that India may represent the co-operation of all the peoples of the world.” Tagore — who, incidentally, wrote India’s national anthem — founded a university whose motto translates to, “Where the whole world meets in a single nest.”

This is the essence of cosmopolitanism. Obviously, power plays a role in the way cultures develop. Symbols and practices can be wrenched from their traditional contexts and used in ways that are disrespectful. When privileged American kids party while wearing Native American headdresses, it looks like they’re donning the spoils of a long-ago war. But the way that some contemporary activists would silo different cultures — as if anything that travels from outside the West is too fragile to survive a collision with raucous mixed-up modernity — is provincialism masquerading as sensitivity. There’s no such thing as cultural purity, and searching for it never leads anywhere good.

Across the globe, many cultures are under threat — languages are being forgotten and indigenous wisdom lost. But the idea that a culture can be protected behind barriers of insulation, treats culture as a static entity that is preservable. If it has arrived at such a condition, it is most likely already dead.

An endangered language can only be protected by being taught, spoken, and shared. It either grows or withers. Likewise and more broadly, cultures are fertilized at their margins where the familiar and unfamiliar interact, thereby generating new cultural forms.

What threatens culture more than anything else is the commercially driven shift away from cultural creation to cultural consumption.

To the extent that culture is something we passively absorb rather than actively construct, the infinitely varied vantage points from which we each see the world will get overshadowed by whatever forms can be most easily reproduced and massively distributed.

Culture is what we make it. It cannot be kept alive in empty vessels.


ISIS and the war in Iraq


Those who brand others as heretics are not generally amenable to the proposition that the heretic deserves a fair hearing. Which is to say: the very idea of a heresy is that it represents a form of belief that must be dealt with by suppression rather than analysis.

Kyle Orton, a young Middle East analyst from England, has just been granted the opportunity to propagate an unthinkable heresy on the op-ed pages of the New York Times: he asserts that ISIS did not come into existence as a result of the war in Iraq but instead that its emergence can be traced to a process of Islamization in Iraq that began in the 1980s.

A kneejerk response comes from Glenn Greenwald:

As someone who so often likes to deploy a lazy guilt-by-association line of attack, Greenwald dismisses the article by branding it as having come from a neocon think tank — that being the Henry Jackson Society — along with an implicit rebuke directed at the New York Times.

Sal Rotman makes an appropriate response:

Indeed, but for Greenwald to make such a critique, he’d probably have to know much more about Iraq’s recent history than he does — so he opts for the easy route of denunciation by branding. Call someone a neocon and it goes without saying — supposedly — than anything they say can be dismissed.

The question as to whether Orton is a neocon (even if one accepts the label being applied to his employer), seems somewhat trivial — unless one is convinced that a neocon is someone whose every utterance is false. Which is to say: unless one views a neocon as a kind of heretic.

The only serious question is whether Orton’s historical analysis is sound — a judgement that many of us are not in a position to make. What many of us can do, however, is assess the coherence of the argument, its plausibility and the extent to which it rings true.

Interestingly, although Greenwald thinks Orton is exonerating the war in Iraq, he apparently missed the fact that Orton views the trend of Islamization in the 1990s as having occured while “Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions.”

One might argue, therefore, that ISIS was just as much a product of the 1991 Gulf War as it was the 2003 Iraq War — but not wholly a product of either.

Orton writes:

It’s true that disbanding the Iraqi Army after 2003 put professional soldiers at the service of the Sunni insurgency. It’s also true that Al Qaeda in Iraq — the small, foreign-led nucleus of what became the Islamic State — used poorly run American prisons like Camp Bucca to recruit former regime elements. But the significant fact is that those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.

There was never any “Baathist coup” of former regime elements inside the Islamic State, as some analysts assume, because these men had long since abandoned Baathism. They joined Al Qaeda in Iraq early after the invasion as an act of ideological conviction, and when Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership was nearly destroyed in 2008-10, these officers were the last men standing precisely because of their superior counterintelligence and security skills.

It was these Salafized former military intelligence officers — led by Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, who had joined the group in 2003 and rose to be the so-called caliph’s deputy, until he was killed in 2014 — who planned the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion into Syria. There, they set up a Saddam Hussein-style authoritarian regime that was the launchpad for the jihadists’ invasion of Iraq in 2014.

From a cursory look at his earlier blog posts, it appears Orton’s analysis is based in part on the research findings of Samuel Helfont, whose PhD dissertation on religion and politics in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was itself based on newly-released records from the Iraqi state and Baath Party. That sounds like a stronger foundation for a thesis than would be provided, for instance, by an individual like “curveball.” It’s certainly worth more careful consideration than for it to simply be dismissed with a tweet.

For those still concerned about which political litmus tests Orton might pass or fail, I would point out that the route he followed in order to recently get hired by the Henry Jackson Society did not seem to be distinctly ideological.

On the “about” page on his blog, Orton writes:

After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine that comprised elements of geopolitics, history, and practical skills in running a humanitarian program, the logical end-point of which would be work with a non-governmental organisation.

I have travelled quite widely, especially in Eastern Europe having been to all of the old Soviet satellite States except Romania, and in the Balkans — Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. I have also been to Turkey and Israel, took part in a voluntary course (teaching) in Kenya, and worked in Lebanon for my Masters on the healthcare system for the Syrian refugees.

Having long been interested in the Arab world, and especially in ways that it might be reformed, I was very interested when the rebellions came to that region at the end of 2010, and followed the course of this “Arab Spring” from its inception. The carnage in Syria and its obvious importance for that whole region have made the subject my primary focus.


Who killed Hezbollah’s Samir Qantar?

According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese commander who had become a high-profile figure in the group, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday.

Israeli officials welcomed the news but did not confirm responsibility for the attack.

While Hezbollah had no hesitation in accusing Israel, as Raed Omari notes, Syrian officials have been more circumspect:

Remarkably enough, the Syrian account of the incident resembled to a greater degree that of Israel – no confirmation and no refuting.

‏But the Syrian statements on Qantar’s killing were worded with a heavy Russian military presence in the background and they were inseparable from new political developments on Syria and the new international coalitions in the making.

It can’t be that the Israelis launched an airstrike on Syria now without coordination with their Russian allies who now control Syria’s airspace. And if the Syrians confirmed that Israeli jets killed Qantar, then they would appear as either having prior knowledge of the plan or have no sovereignty over their country.

Who actually killed the 54-year-old Qantar? In my opinion, Israel is a likely perpetrator but the question is how its jets flew over Syria now without being spotted by the Russian satellites and space power. The Russian silence on the incident is also worth-noting.

Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has released a statement claiming that they were responsible for Qantar’s death.

The New York Times quotes a Druze militia group that said the building which was targeted had been hit by “four long-range missiles.”

An Israeli columnist quotes “Western sources” claiming that Qantar was a “ticking bomb.”

The sources said Kuntar had recently not been working on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather acting with increasing independence alongside pro-Assad militias in Syria.

The attack in Damascus comes at a moment when, according to Israeli sources, “Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago.”

Assuming that this was indeed an Israeli airstrike, it appears to have not only been aimed at an individual, but also intended to send some additional messages: that Israel is not unduly constrained by Russia’s air operations in Syria and that the Hezbollah fighters propping up the Assad regime are more expendable than their Iranian counterparts.

Creede Newton writes:

Regardless of who fired the missile, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has already made his decision: this was Israel. Now, the question is, how will Nasrallah respond to another high-level assassination?

Some think Hezbollah’s falling popularity with the Sunni majority in the Middle East due to its meddling in the Syrian conflict could use a boost, and a conflict with Israel would help.

Others say Hezbollah is stretched, and a war with the powerful Israeli military is the last thing the Shia group needs.

Nicholas Blanford writes:

The current situation mirrors the immediate aftermath of an Israeli pilotless drone strike on 18 January in the Golan that killed Jihad Mughniyeh — son of former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh — an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah struck back 10 days later with an anti-tank missile ambush against an Israeli army convoy at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, killing an officer and a soldier.

Following the ambush, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the rules of engagement that had defined the tit-for-tat conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were over.

“From now on, if any Hezbollah resistance cadre or youth is killed in a treacherous manner, we will hold Israel responsible and it will then be our right to respond at any place and at any time and in the manner we deem appropriate,” he said.

Nasrallah is due to speak Monday night and will probably reaffirm that commitment, which will ensure a state of tension along Israel’s northern border in the coming days.

The concept of reciprocity is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s defense strategy against Israel, which may offer a clue as to the party’s response to Kuntar’s assassination. In the years following the 2006 War, Nasrallah has articulated on several occasions Hezbollah’s strategy of retaliating in kind for Israeli actions against Lebanon in a future conflict — if Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv; if Israel blockades Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israeli ports with its long-range anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Galilee.

Even on a tactical level, Hezbollah has sought to achieve reciprocity against Israel. In October 2014, Hezbollah mounted a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms that wounded two Israeli soldiers in response to the death a month earlier of a party military technician who died when a booby-trapped Israeli wire-tapping device exploded.

The January anti-tank missile attack against the Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms also sought to echo Israel’s deadly drone missile strike in the Golan 10 days earlier.

“They killed us in broad daylight, we killed them in broad daylight… They hit two of our vehicles, we hit two of their vehicles,” Nasrallah said at the time.