Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Cockburn rakes the muck on Wiesel

The prominence of Elie Wiesel is a mystery.  We are often told that Night, his first book (published in French in 1958), which purports to be a memoir of his time in Buchenwald, is the founding text of 'Holocaust literature', but even the status of this work is open to question.  Meanwhile, Wiesel is better known for his work promoting 'peace', which apparently has included support for black South Africans in the apartheid era, Bosnian Muslims, the Kurds. 

But preeminently, Wiesel's support has been for Jewish and Zionist causes.  He has declared that the Holocaust was a genocide incomparable to other murderous 'cleansings', notably the Armenian genocide.   He has supported the Kadima party founded by Ariel Sharon and led by Ehud Olmert.  He has criticized the Obama Administration for its pressure on the Netanyahu government to cease settlement construction in East Jerusalem, and since 2011, he's served as chair of the Ir David organisation, which seeks to create a Jewish majority in that part of the city.

During Operation Protective Edge, Israel's murderous bombardment of the Gaza Strip last summer, Wiesel was at it again, publishing an advertisement in Ha'aretz celebrating the increasing Jewish population of East Jerusalem.

How all of these positions amount to support for 'peace' is unclear.  This makes Alexander Cockburn's stinging attack on him, originally published in Counterpunch's  print edition in 2006 and now republished on Counterpunch's brilliant website, all the more apposite and enjoyable.

Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s “Night”


Monday, 20 October 2014

The ends of university education

Nicholas Canny is a distinguished Irish historian who, in the tradition of DB Quinn and Nicholas Mansergh, has been willing to locate the processes of Irish history and Irish relations with England over the last 500 years within the frameworks of colonialism and empire.  Canny, a former head of the Royal Irish Academy, is well-placed to offer a reasoned liberal defence of humanistic university education in the Irish third-level system.  In a situation of shrunken state funding, political cowardice about requiring the Irish middle-class constructively to contribute to their children's university years, and a complete absence of thoughtful public debate about the purpose and strengths of our universities, such a defence is well-needed.  Here Canny reviews a book about the (even worse) situation in Britain, for the Dublin Review of Books:

The Utility of Inquiry

In most ways, the travails of the Irish or American university - bureaucrats colonising an ever-expanding administration, and corporate values encroaching on the proper purposes of research and teaching - seem, while unfortunate, mild in comparison to those of Palestinian universities, which are regularly attacked by the IDF in both Gaza and the West Bank, and which suffer greatly under the routines of Israeli occupation, with students and staff held up or sometimes attacked at checkpoints, campuses invaded, and infrastructure bombarded in the Strip.   But the question of Palestine and the neoliberalisation of the Western university sometimes coincide, to damaging effect.   Here is Joseph Massad (a true survivor of the post-9/11 assault on academic freedom in America), on this particular conjuncture - from Electronic Intifada:

Academic civility and its discontents



Islam - A Secular History

Tariq Ali is one of the great figures of the British New Left.  A lifelong leftwing activist, Ali was removed from Pakistan in his teens by his parents, fearful because of his protests against the-then Pakistani government.  A former president of the Oxford Union, redoubtable campaigner against the Vietnam War, participant in the Russell Tribunal, monitor of the trial in Bolivia of Regis Debray and a major figure in British Trotskyism, Ali is a gifted orator, journalist, film-maker and all-round public intellectual.

In the context of current Western panic about the Islamic State (always referred to in Irish news reports as 'the so-called Islamic State'), and general ignorance about Islam, Ali's essay on the history of that religion is worth reading.

A Secular History of Islam


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Always Looking on the Bright Side - Slavoj Zizek, cats and revolutionary unhappiness

Slavoj Zizek must be one of the most popular philosophers working in the Anglophone world.  The Slovenian, who burst on us with The Sublime Object of Ideology in 1989, has a capacity to get work out on a scale and with a rapidity that puts even Terry Eagleton to shame.  Further, Zizek's books are rarely the witty primers that, it must be said, Eagleton can probably write in his sleep and spends half his time producing: they are fat and complex melanges of Hegel and Lacan (pre-eminently) that happily discuss an astonishing range of philosophical, cultural and political phenomena.  Colin MacCabe once famously said of Fredric Jameson that 'nothing cultural is foreign to him', and one could say the same of Zizek, who cheerfully engages in film-making, public discussion of almost anything under the sun, and developing the largest body of jokes by any intellectual I know of in recent times - a collection of them having recently been published.  Not for Zizek Adorno's mandarin melancholy, though he shows some of the same mordancy in the interview linked below.  In a different - simpler - way from Adorno, too, Zizek is a provocateur - rehabilitating Lenin, to the horror of his liberal or soft-left admirers, or saying nice things about Stalin just to make everyone nervous; performing astonishing feats of public lecturing (for the Irish, it would be fair to say that Zizek in full flow is a bit like Christy Moore: a storm in a t-shirt) combined with physical tics that would make you want never to sit beside him on the bus; and a bracingly dialectical willingness to contemplate the whole world in terms of its opposites.  Like Adorno, however, Zizek has not always been so clear-eyed about Israel and Palestine: one notes his support for the academic boycott in the interview below, while he is also desperately anxious to say he does not believe in some kind of blanket boycott of Israel (whatever that would be).  Further, in regard to the politics of the former Yugoslavia, he is sometimes troubling, having supported the bombing of Serbia by NATO.  Like Adorno, too, Zizek is happy in his unhappiness, and the web-conversation recorded on the Guardian recently captures much of the fertility of his wit and knowledge.

"I'd tax cats. Heavily" - Slavoj Zizek



Monday, 13 October 2014

America, Turkey, and ISIS

The dire situation of the city of Kobani - sitting bang on the Syria-Turkey border, populated by Kurds, under formidable siege by ISIS, but unaided by Turkey - goes a long way to illustrate the contradictions and incoherence of American policy vis-a-vis the new caliphate.  Here is Patrick Cockburn cutting through the confusion:

US Middle East Strategy in Tatters


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Israel - A Carceral State

The new issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies is devoted to Israeli practices of capturing, imprisoning, corralling, restricting the movements of, separating Palestinians.  Routinized forms of incarceration are as much part of the Occupation of the West Bank as house demolitions or checkpoints.  According to the JPS, 40% of the male population of the Territories - approximately 800,000 people - have been victims of some form of detention by the Israeli authorities since 1967.

As of 1 May 2014, the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian NGO dedicated to prisoners’ rights, reports 5,271 Palestinian political prisoners and administrative detainees in Israeli custody in an archipelago of 25 prisons, detention, and interrogation centers throughout Israel and the West Bank.

Earlier this year, prisoners held in “administrative detention” led a hunger strike demanding an end to the systematic practice of imprisoning Palestinians without charge, trial or sentence. A colonial practice inherited from the British mandatory regime, Israel’s “administrative detention” law subjects Palestinian political prisoners to imprisonment without due process for renewable periods of three and six months - very much akin to the practice of internment without trial which was practiced in the early days of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Some Palestinians have been held in such circumstances for over a decade. Palestinians brought to trial will face a military court with a 99% conviction rate.

Israel’s ongoing practice of widespread detention of Palestinians since the 1948 War characterizes the Zionist state-building and subsequent Israeli state imperative from the early Kibbutzim to the recent separation barrier of erecting “structures of control and confinement,” that, in Rashid Khalidi's words, represent “Israel’s nature from its very beginnings until the present day as a carceral state for the Palestinian people.”
For a limited time, the JPS is making some of the articles of its new issue available free online:

Journal of Palestine Studies


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Agonies of the Potentates

Long ago and in better days, Christopher Hitchens wrote several very fine essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien.  While lodged at this time more comfortably on the Left than he would eventually be, Hitchens could nevertheless assess O'Brien coolly and recognise his stylishness, his intelligence, his personal courage, and his frequent insight.  But he was never less than sure of O'Brien's Burkean tendency to support the established powers in various sites of conflict, and to attend sympathetically to the travails of authority.  It was in this mood of courageous dissent in the service of domination that O'Brien could castigate leftist agitation and nationalist protest in Ulster, break the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa, and write an enormous pot-boiling history of Israel entitled The Siege.  The metaphor of the siege pervades O'Brien's understanding of late-colonial struggle - the forces of reaction to which he unwisely attached his colours were always under 'siege' - giving the Cruiser a morally inverted sensitivity to what Hitchens called 'the agonies of the potentates'.

It is this sense of the importance, seriousness and debate-worthiness of the overdogs, of the moral and political complexity of their quandaries, that subtends Denis Staunton's flabby article in Saturday's Irish Times, 'Israel and Palestine: the new battle for hearts and minds'.  Mr Staunton, this blog noted earlier this year, wrote on the occasion of the death of Ariel Sharon that 'the Bulldozer' 'might soon be missed' - a classic example of sneaking regard. Only someone so comfortably detached from the human and moral realities of Israel/Palestine, only someone who actually believes that the candyfloss discourse of diplomacy and much mainstream commentary have proper heft and meaning, could have written in that way about the criminal and treacherous Sharon, or could have produced such a po-faced article on Israel's struggles to manage its public relations.

This article exemplified much of what is wrong and skewed in Irish Times coverage of Israel/Palestine.  The brief window to more critical reporting wedged open by the Gaza slaughter has clearly closed once more.  It seems likely that Staunton's article was written from a desk in Dublin, with the help of telephones and email.  The essay is entirely concerned with the notions of commentators and lobbyists, not with the 'facts on the ground'.  Only Israeli or Israel-related figures and organisations are cited or discussed - Daniel Levy, and Alan Elsner of J Street, the slick and media-savvy/media-friendly version of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is referred to briefly, but none of its spokespeople or policies are cited or discussed.  One wonders if Staunton really thinks that Palestinian political actors - whether the PA, or Hamas, or the Palestinian leaders of BDS active since 2005 - do not seek to win 'hearts and minds', in Palestine, in Israel, or in the rest of the world?   Or is such an idea thinkable in the Irish Times?   Perhaps Staunton and his confederates really think with Golda Meir that 'there are no Palestinians', or none worth doing some serious journalism about.

Staunton's article, therefore, exemplifies the view that the Palestinians are not really newsworthy unless they are blowing themselves up - unless they are confirming our stereotypes of them.  Better to report on the agonies of the potentates, than the political activity of the oppressed.

Staunton cites Elsner as arguing that the two-state solution is the 'only game in town'.  The fact is that the two state solution has long been an alibi for the Israeli government's rolling plans for settlement expansion, siege (the real 'siege') and domination, and it's one promoted by J Street and parroted by the likes of Denis Staunton.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Many-Headed Hydra of the Middle East

Some years ago, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, longtime historians of popular radicalism and of the oppressed, jointly authored a wonderful book called The Many-Headed Hydra.  The book's thesis was that throughout the early years of mercantilism and proto-capitalism, forged in Europe and the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pockets of resistance, often mobile, globalised long before the term came into use, appeared at various points of the Atlantic littoral.  Over against the emerging trading companies - the British East India Company, the Dutch East Indies Company, the Virginia Company - there rose up a shifting and fluid set of groups of artisans, sailors, farmers, smallholders, 'pirates', runaway slaves, revolutionists all.  Proto-anarchist or socialist ideas were promulgated and disseminated around the fringes of the great ocean, and eventually this 'Atlantic proletariat' contributed to and were to a degree contained by the American Revolution.

This fissile, plastic, amorphous and mobile constellation of ideas and activists was called by its enemies 'the many-headed Hydra'.  The Hydra was a mythical beast, fought by Hercules, which boasted multiple heads - even as the Greek demigod slashed one head off, several more would grow in its place.  Revolutionary activism - nomadic, peripatetic, evanescent and elusive - could be crushed in one place, only to reappear shortly afterwards in another.

This is the condition (though hardly the ideology), in many ways, of the protean forces of Sunni ultra-conservative radicalism in the Middle East, now notably exemplified by 'ISIS' or 'ISIL'.  ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qa'eda in Iraq.  Al Qa'eda was itself in part a product of the 'jihad' organised in the late 1970s by the Carter presidency, the Sadat government in Egypt, and the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan.  As the late John Cooley explained in formidable detail in his book Unholy Wars, a cynical alliance was constructed between American grand strategy, money and equipment, Saudi money and Wahhabi or Salafi ideology, Egyptian personnel, and the Pakistan secret services to channel Sunni activists and militants from all over the Muslim world to fight godless communism in Afghanistan.  America and some of its nastier allies tried to ride the tiger of jihad, and initially attained considerable success: the Soviets found their own 'Vietnam' in the barren deserts and icy ramparts of the Hindu Kush.  But when the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, the result, after years of instability, was the accession of the Taliban to government in the 1990s, and its uneasy relationship with Osama bin Laden and his  vanguard.  Bin Laden had already been expelled from Saudi Arabia, and had also been forced to leave the Sudan.  In the shambolic state of Afghanistan, Al Qa'eda could run its training camps, and offer its expertise in guerilla warfare to conservative Muslim malcontents anywhere.  When the United States plunged into Iraq in 2003, Al Qa'eda appeared there too, initially under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.   In the mid-2000s, the Americans finally pacified the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq - the heartlands in that country of ISIS now - by buying the local leaderships off from their relationship with Al Qa'eda.    Sectarian misgovernment by the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Baghdad eventually alienated the Sunni population once again, and the conservative militants regained their grip in that community, aided further by the brutal war being waged over the western border in Syria, where the 'moderate' opposition to Bashar al-Assad has long disappeared, leaving principally ISIS or its affiliates. 

ISIS is different from Al Qa'eda in that the latter's commitment to re-establishing a 'caliphate' seemed mostly rhetorical - Al Qa'eda never made any effort to hold down a specific territory or to create a defined polity, and never of itself had the manpower to do so.  ISIS, however, does, and this makes it in some ways a more powerful enemy than its predecessor.  It has territory, very large amounts of money - some of it stolen from an arm of the Iraqi central bank in Mosul, some of it donated by conservatives from the Gulf kingdoms - and a large amount of weaponry.  It appears to have control of some oilfields.  Its supporters in the Gulf - private benefactors from the Saudi Kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain - both wish to see it destabilize Shia power in Iraq and Bathi Arab nationalism in Syria, and are terrified of the Frankenstein monster they have created, lest it turn its ruthless and austere focus back on their corrupt petty-feudal kleptocracies.  'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', Goya told us, and each new 'monster' that Sunni conservatism produces is more alarming than the last.

This is the point of comparison with the mobile, shape-shifting radicals of the revolutionary Atlantic in the eighteenth century - each movement, no matter how many times it is broken in open battle, reinvents itself, reappears in new guise, somewhere else, to continue the struggle.  The Obama Administration's campaign of airstrikes seems unlikely to be very effective against such an enemy, and has every possibility of terrorising the populations of Sunni Iraq and Syria into deeper support for that enemy. Here is Patrick Cockburn, who is shortly to publish a new book on the 'return of the Jihadis', in conversation with Tariq Ali -

The Rise of ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War

Another metaphor or historical framework through which to think of ISIS (and Al Qa'eda before it) is that of the Spanish Civil War.  That is, young restless men, on both the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, were pushed by an anomie-ridden existence in their home countries at the latter end of the Great Depression to rally to what felt like the defining political dispute of the day in Spain.  Something analogous is happening with the young men that migrate to join the ranks of ISIS - an Islamist/Arab movement that appears to have the purity, direction and coherence that the old dictatorial, Arab-nationalist, or monarchical-feudal Arab polities lack.  The mainstream media tells us endlessly that ISIS's levies are 'radicalised', but this foolish term is just plainly ideological - young men joining ISIS may not be any more 'radicalised' than other idealistic young people who flock to causes of all kinds.

Here's a London Review of Books blogpiece that uses the Spanish analogy:

The New International Brigades



Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Shooting and Crying

I first encountered Ari Shavit through a famous and extraordinary interview he conducted with Edward Said in 2000.  The interview was for Ha'aretz, the Israeli elite daily newspaper.  Entitled 'My Right of Return', it's since been collected by Gauri Viswanathan in her comprehensive and rich anthology of interviews with Said, Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said.

The interview is famous for various reasons.  Said was the most prominent Palestinian intellectual and dissident working in the Western world up to his death in 2003.  Even for a putatively liberal journal such as Ha'aretz, interviewing Said amounted to a confrontation with one of Israel's most formidable enemies - formidable precisely because of his Westernised character, his difference from the fedayeen of the Palestinian exiles in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or from the radical clerics in Gaza, formidable precisely because he used language as his weapon, not rifles or rockets, and spoke from one of the great centres of American intellectual life.   Yet Shavit was self-conscious enough to realise that there was a degree of similarity between himself and his interlocutor, and the interview ends with Shavit suggesting that Said sounds very 'Jewish', and Said himself, in an extraordinary gesture, at once humorous and deeply serious, claiming to be 'the last Jewish intellectual, the only true inheritor of Adorno'.

Shavit represents an interesting Israeli constituency.  He is a member of the Ashkenazi-Labour elite, which believes that it founded the State and gave it its greatness (political, ethical, social, economic, military), but which has found itself since the arrival in power in 1977 of the Likud ever more firmly edged off the political scene.   Now Shavit has produced a book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which, inter alia, both analyses and dramatises the political and ethical fate of this grouping.  It's reviewed searchingly by Nathan Thrall in the current London Review of Books

Liberal Zionism