The U.S. ‘right’ to own guns came with the ‘right’ to own slaves

Christopher Dickey writes: For most of the last two centuries, Europeans have been puzzling over their American cousins’ totemic obsession with guns and their passion for concealed weapons. And back in the decades before the American Civil War, several British visitors to American shores thought they’d discerned an important connection: People who owned slaves or lived among them wanted to carry guns to keep the blacks intimidated and docile, but often shot each other, too.

In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens, on a book tour of the United States, saw a link between the sheer savagery of slave ownership and what he called the cowardly practice of carrying pistols or daggers or both. The author of Oliver Twist listened with a mixture of horror and contempt as Americans defended their utterly indefensible “rights” to tote guns and carry Bowie knives, right along with their “right” to own other human beings who could be shackled, whipped, raped, and mutilated at will.

As damning evidence of the way slaves were treated, in his American Notes Dickens published texts from scores of advertisements for the capture of runaways. Often these public notices described the wanted men and women by their scars. One especially memorable example:

“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.”

Dickens also compiled a list of several shooting incidents, not all of them in the South: a county councilman blown away in the council chamber of Brown County, Wisconsin; a fatal shootout in the street in St. Louis; the murder of Missouri’s governor; two 13-year-old boys defending their “honor” by dueling with long rifles, and other examples.

What could one expect, he asked, of those who “learn to write with pens of red-hot iron on the human face” but that they carry guns and daggers to use on each other. “These are the weapons of Freedom,” Dickens wrote with brutal irony. “With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote themselves to a better use, and turn them on each other.” [Continue reading…]


Russia names United States among threats in new security strategy

Reuters reports: A new appraisal names the United States as one of the threats to Russia’s national security for the first time, a sign of how relations with the west have deteriorated in recent years.

The document, “About the Strategy of National Security of Russian Federation”, was signed by President Vladimir Putin on New Year’s Eve. It replaces a 2009 version, endorsed by then- President Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister, which mentioned neither the United States not NATO.

It says Russia has managed to heighten its role in solving global problems and international conflicts. That heightened role has caused a reaction by the West, it says.

“The strengthening of Russia happens against the background of new threats to the national security, which has complex and interrelated nature,” the document says.

Conducting an independent policy, “both international and domestic” has caused “counteraction from the USA and its allies, which are striving to retain their dominance in global affairs.” [Continue reading…]


The paranoid style of American policing

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: When I was around 10 years old, my father confronted a young man who was said to be “crazy.” The young man was always too quick to want to fight. A foul in a game of 21 was an insult to his honor. A cross word was cause for a duel, and you never knew what that cross word might be. One day, the young man got into it with one of my older brother’s friends. The young man pulled a metal stake out of the ground (there was some work being done nearby) and began swinging it wildly in a threatening manner. My father, my mother, or my older brother — I don’t recall which — told the other boy to go inside of our house. My dad then came outside. I don’t really remember what my father said to the young man. Perhaps he said something like “Go home,” or maybe something like, “Son, it’s over.” I don’t really recall. But what I do recall is that my dad did not shoot and kill the young man.

That wasn’t the first time I’d seen my father confront the violence of young people without resorting to killing them. This was not remarkable. When you live in communities like ours — or perhaps any community — mediating violence between young people is part of being an adult. Sometimes the young people are involved in scary behavior — like threatening people with metal objects. And yet the notion that it is permissible, wise, moral, or advisable to kill such a person as a method of de-escalation, to kill because one was afraid, did not really exist among parents in my community.

The same could not be said for those who came from outside of the community. [Continue reading…]


The invasion of Antarctica


Simon Romero writes: On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.

Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.

Not to be outdone, India’s futuristic new Bharathi base, built on stilts using 134 interlocking shipping containers, resembles a spaceship. Turkey and Iran have announced plans to build bases, too.

More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics. [Continue reading…]


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.


Out of touch: U.S. diplomacy shackled by security concerns

Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.

For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.

Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.

But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]


Anti-Muslim hate crimes on the rise in the U.S.

Southern Poverty Law Center reports: The year 2015 is drawing to a close with a continuing wave of firebombings and apparent hate crimes at mosques in various U.S. cities, including Christmas-weekend arson attacks in California and Texas.

There were no injuries in either of the two latest fire-bombings.

But at Houston’s Saavoy Masjid, a mosque operated by the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, damage was described as “significant.” A fire started at “multiple locations” around 2:45 p.m. on Christmas Day, just an hour after hundreds of people had been in the building for Friday prayers, authorities said.

The following day, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at a doorway of the Tracy Islamic Center in Tracy, Calif., east of Oakland, causing minor damage. [Continue reading…]


New York’s forgotten mosque

Wilson Fache writes: New York City is well known for its numerous ethnic quarters, like the tourist-packed Little Italy or the oddly authentic Chinatown. Far less well known however is a small neighbourhood that locals used to call “Little Syria”.

From the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, that enclave was the economic and cultural centre of the Arab diaspora in the US; that is before it was demolished in order to build a tunnel and then later, in the sixties, the World Trade Centre.

These few blocks were home to a large number of immigrants mainly coming from what was then known as “Greater Syria” (Bilad al-Sham), a region ruled by the Ottoman Empire that nowadays includes Syria as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and a part of southern Turkey.

Civic associations like the Washington Street Historical Society have been advocating for years to raise awareness about the largely unknown quarter and preserve the few buildings that are left, such as St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which is located on Washington street.

For many years is was assumed that the neighbourhood was only ever inhabited by Christians. Since there was no record of a place of worship dedicated to another faith, it was assumed there had never been one. Then a few months ago, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver doing research on early Islam in the US came across an article entitled “Mohammedans now have a place of worship here”. [Continue reading…]


Americans use more energy on Christmas lights than is used to power entire countries

AFP reports: American household Christmas lights, a favorite holiday tradition, use up more electricity than some poorer countries — such as El Salvador or Ethiopia — do in a year.

Bright lights strung on American trees, rooftops and lawns account for 6.63 billion kilowatt hours of electricity consumption every year, according to a recent blog post by the Center for Global Development.

That’s more than the national electricity consumption of many developing countries. El Salvador for one, uses 5.35 billion kilowatt hours, while Ethiopia consumes 5.30 billion and Tanzania 4.81 billion. [Continue reading…]


Islamophobia in America in 2015: The year in review

The Bridge Initiative: Looking back at the last twelve months, it can initially appear that Islamophobia was pretty bad in 2015.

And indeed it was. Attacks against Muslims in the United States and their institutions have occurred in rapid succession. Meanwhile, leading politicians and the voting public have expressed increasingly anti-Muslim views.

Even though FBI hate crime statistics for this year won’t be released for some time, the current climate of hostility towards Muslims in the United States indicates that 2015 could be America’s most Islamophobic year since 9/11.

Despite the bleak picture, 2015 also witnessed some positive shifts in the way the media and the public dealt with and responded to Islamophobia. As prejudice towards and discrimination against Muslims intensified and gained more media attention, many journalists, activists, and ordinary Americans felt compelled to do something about it. [Continue reading…]


America’s gun problem has everything to do with America’s masculinity problem

Elizabeth Winkler writes: After US president Obama’s call for restrictions on assault weapons on Dec. 6, Americans went gun shopping.

That Monday, The New York Times reports that stock prices for gun makers Smith & Wesson and Ruger soared. Guns sold well on Black Friday, too, the day after three people were shot dead at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and just two weeks after terrorists killed more than one hundred in coordinated attacks in Paris. In fact, gun sales have been rising steadily all year, as though determined to keep pace with the growing frequency of high-profile shootings.

But who exactly are America’s gun owners?

According to a Pew survey conducted in 2014, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be members of a gun-owning household. Gun owners are also geographically spread out: They’re just as likely to live in the Midwestern US (38%) as they are to live in on the West Coast (35%), or the South (34%), debunking the myth that gun ownership is more prevalent in southern states. (In the Northeast, by contrast, gun ownership is lower, at around 27%.)

Above all, though, gun owners are men. It is true that gun sales are rising among women, but a substantial gender gap persists: In 2013, men are around three times as likely as women to own a gun. [Continue reading…]


Crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques rise sharply

The New York Times reports: Hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques across the United States have tripled in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., with dozens occurring within just a month, according to new data.

The spike includes assaults on hijab-wearing students; arsons and vandalism at mosques; and shootings and death threats at Islamic-owned businesses, an analysis by a California State University research group has found.

President Obama and civil rights leaders have warned about anecdotal evidence of a recent Muslim backlash, particularly in California. But the analysis is the first to document the rise, amid a crescendo of anti-Islamic statements from politicians.

“The terrorist attacks, coupled with the ubiquity of these anti-Muslim stereotypes seeping into the mainstream, have emboldened people to act upon this fear and anger,” said Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University, San Bernardino. [Continue reading…]


Conspiracy America — where Trump already rules

Ben Judah writes: Trump is a son and hero to Conspiracy America, a country where academic studies show 40 per cent of citizens believe the US government is covering up the cure for cancer, a republic where 25 per cent believe the “Birther” conspiracy he helped to create, and nearly 20 per cent believe the “Truther” conspiracy that al-Qaeda fanatics were not responsible for the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Why do so many Americans believe such fabrications? This is the most urgent question for America today.

The paranoia fuelling Trump’s rise is the curse of the Bush era. Conspiracy America is a delayed reaction to the twin Bush disasters: the War on Terror and the banking collapse. History warns us that fear of demonic plots builds slowly after confusing, traumatic events. And once a conspiracy theory is born – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, or the power of the Freemasons – it is nearly impossible to kill.

Conspiracies about the Kennedy assassination built slowly, peaking in the 1980s. Germany’s “stab-in-the-back” myth grew only slowly after the Treaty of Versailles, peaking in the 1930s. History warns that paranoia about plots thrives in states which are being delegitimised: whenever they are unable to fulfil their promises – of empire, welfare, or the American Dream – the pattern of history is those losing out see plots, not systems, stealing what was theirs.

America’s shifting racial structure and social-media addiction may be far less to blame for Trump’s popularity than the rightists of Washington would like to admit. Conspiracy theories are able to thrive in atmospheres where the government has embraced the rhetoric of “us and them” – just as the War on Terror produced. Above all, the history books tell us, conspiracy theorists such as Trump thrive in societies that are growing poorer, weaker, more unequal, and where their citizens do not understand why that is happening. And that is America today. [Continue reading…]


How does it feel to be told you are welcome in your own country?


Ever since I became a U.S. citizen, I’ve got a kick out of the fact that when re-entering this country (after visits to the UK), after presenting my passport, the immigration official commonly returns it to me, saying: “welcome back.”

Maybe this happens more often for travelers coming through laid-back Atlanta than somewhere like New York City, but it’s an endearing friendly touch where one otherwise confronts the cold face of bureaucracy and security.

Across the globe, crossing a border tends to be a dehumanizing experience when who we are is so sharply defined by a piece of paper.

As a dual national and British citizen, it’s frankly unimaginable that a representative of the government there would offer any kind of greeting.

Once back in the U.S., however, I would find it a bit disturbing if a fellow citizen wanted to reassure me that I’m welcome here, since, supposedly, we both share equal rights and an equal claim to American identity.

Even so, since I wasn’t born here and since I “have an accent” (to which I like to respond: who doesn’t?), it’s not difficult for me to understand why I might be viewed by some Americans as an outsider. Indeed, the term “naturalization” has always struck me as being an oxymoron. An innate attribute is either there or it isn’t — I don’t see how it can be inserted.

For that reason, I’m inclined to defer moderately to those Americans who feel like an American who was born in this country is in some sense more American than those of us who were born elsewhere.

That shouldn’t imply any discrimination in terms of status or rights — it’s simply an observation about depth of enculturation.

Which brings me to Muslim Americans, a large proportion of whom were indeed born in this country and have never lived anywhere else.

When someone such as Mark Zuckerberg reaches out to Muslims and says, “I want you to know that you are always welcome here,” I realize this kind of message is well-intended, but it isn’t deeply inclusive.

One American should never be so presumptuous as to tell another American that they are welcome here.

What is called for at this time is something much more radical. What is being contested is the meaning of solidarity.

Some Americans are saying that we now need to stand together to protect ourselves from foreign threats. This kind of unity divides humanity into two camps: Americans and non-Americans. And this division undercuts the very notion of humanity.

It becomes clear then, that the actual rift here is between those for whom their experience of being American is subordinate to their experience of being human, and those for whom their identity as Americans, trumps all others.

Is someone who gives such preeminence to national identity, really capable of any genuine expression of solidarity?

If you’re ability to empathize with another person depended on first knowing what kind of citizenship they held or which religion they practiced, how could such empathy be heartfelt?

I have to wonder whether those Americans who are afraid of Muslims are not also, to a lesser degree, afraid of each other?

Empathy is the core human recognition. It is the knowledge that your experience of pain is the same as mine; that love, joy, grief, and anger are universal emotions.

Where this knowledge is lacking, or where it gets buried beneath a rigid national identity, xenophobia and Islamophia are merely symptomatic of a degradation of an underlying sense of humanity.

Americans who do not see themselves as indivisibly part of humanity, should be less concerned about how they protect America than what they think it means to be human.

And since so many American-firsters describe themselves as Christians, they might begin a process of self-inquiry by reminding themselves that according to their own belief system, they are the descendants of a human lineage that traces back to a single source preceding all national identities.


A refugee’s message to Americans: ‘We run away from war… We just want to live in peace’

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