Thursday, 19 November 2015


Dear readers

(or, 'Good evenin' listeners', as the truly inimitable Tommy O'Brien used to say on his brilliant programme of bel canto music on RTE Radio 1 - back in the days when Irish radio presenters weren't mostly zombies or drones, had real regional accents, and weren't charisma-less scratchy-voiced self-confections like Ryan Tubridy).

Sometime in the last hour or so, this blog attained its 15,000th pageview.   My information on traffic sources does not suggest to me that you are all bots, or emanations of bots.  I am sure you are all relieved to learn this about yourselves, and I thank you for reading the blog!



Monday, 16 November 2015


Last night, France launched airstrikes on Raqqa, the Islamic State's stronghold in northern Syria.  Officials say that 'command and control centres' and arms dumps were hit by Mirage attack aircraft flying from a base in Jordan.   Because reporting from Syria has become so dangerous, we have no way of confirming that only such centres and dumps were actually hit: there is no way to ascertain whether civilians were hurt or killed.

It's quite likely, however, that they were.  It's not clear to me what kind of weapons systems were used against Raqqa, but even modern guided munitions - air-to-ground missiles such as the American Hellfire or the French Exocet, or laser-guided bombs - are dependent on the presence of persons on the ground or planes or drones in the air to 'illuminate' targets.  Dropping  bombs from high altitude, which has been NATO practice for some time (even though the French, Americans, Russians would have overall air superiority over Syria) is a recipe for missing targets.

In any case, we cannot know what the result of these bombing missions has been.  Defenders of notionally 'resolute' French action would say that if civilians were hurt, there was no 'intention' to hurt them.  This is a mealy-mouthed theoretically weak answer.  Western powers, including Israel, deploy air-power, and make cynical calculations about the level of collateral damage that will be or could be incurred.  Lawyers balance the 'value' of the military target to be hit against the number of civilians casualties that may be affected.  When Israel drops 2000lb laser-guided bombs on a building in Gaza, it rationalises its action by saying that a militant Hamas leader was killed, and that is enough to 'balance' the fact that members of his family were killed along with him.  If 2 family members die (say), that can be presented as a success, whereas if 8 family members die, it's not a (propaganda) success.  The point, though, is that the attack is mounted in the knowledge that civilians are put at great risk.  In this light, the argument that Islamists are savagely and 'intentionally' indiscriminate in their attacks, whereas Western countries try to maintain what Israel used to call 'purity of arms' by 'intending' the avoidance of civilian losses, loses any moral or philosophical force it might ever have had.

Behind such thinking lies the matter of the 'otherness' of France's victims, and the fact that the (cultural, political, ultimately inhuman) Other can be treated as one wishes, without compunction.   The suffering or victimhood of the Other can never match our own, the implication runs, and so only our casualties are worthy of grief.  The pre-eminent thinker on this topic - as on many other topics these days - is the redoubtable Judith Butler.  Here she is on the 'massacre at Paris', as Christopher Marlowe would have called it.  Taken from the Verso website:

Judith Butler: Precariousness and Grievability—When Is Life Grievable?


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Reaping the Whirlwind - ISIS massacres in Paris

Once again, barely ten months after the horror of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, much worse violence has slashed brutally across the cityscape of Paris.  Attacks on a rock concert, on restaurants and cafes, and on the Stade de France cannot be answered by sententious avowals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  French state rhetoric this time is simply that of war.  Francois Hollande has termed the attacks 'acts of war', and has vowed to pursue the perpetrators 'without mercy'.  France is at war with a terrorist organisation.  Where have we heard this kind of language before?

On RTE Radio 1 this morning, Michael Colgan, the artistic director of the Gate Theatre, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer, moaned that seeking reasons for these attacks is a useless exercise, and an evasion of the manifestation of evil in the world which ISIS represents.  Brutal events like those at the Bataclan Theatre on Friday night are so horrific as to seem to beggar explanation or any kind of abstract analysis.  But analysis and cool thinking are precisely what are needed at such times, and scepticism in the face of state pronouncements and media consensus.

Here is a selection of material worth looking at.   Doubtless more such, and vastly more rubbish, will appear yet in the next few days.


Patrick Cockburn at CounterPunch:

'Isis in Paris'—By Tariq Ali


Juan Cole at the Nation, on France's destructive and unwise relationship with Saudi Arabia:

France Should Stop Listening to Saudi Arabia on Syria

Ghosts of Lydda - remembering Yitzhak Rabin

On November 4 last, we passed the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minster of Israel, just after a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995.  He was shot by a young ultra-religious Jewish zealot, Yigal Amir.   Rabin had led Israel into the Oslo peace process with the PLO, signing the 'Declaration of Principles' with Yasser Arafat in September 1993.

The anniversary brought a wave of nostalgic what-iffery from Israeli and Western liberals - if Rabin had lived, would the peace process have succeeded?  Most journalistic articles of this tenor have been both maudlin and mendacious, none more so that that by Mark Weiss, Israel correspondent of the Irish Times.  Weiss's article paints Rabin as a liberal peacenik.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Raymond Deane and I (and others, no doubt) sent off corrective letters to the Irish Times, but to no avail. I am posting both Raymond's letter, and my own, here.


First, Raymond's:

Dear Editor

Mark Weiss's report on the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist is seriously misleading. [2nd November]
Mr. Weiss writes: 'Three bullets and 20 years later, with the country still reeling after a month of Palestinian stabbing attacks and Israeli countermeasures, the assassination anniversary left a huge “what if?” question unanswered... Could [Rabin] have succeeded, despite the horrific wave of suicide bombings that followed the signing of the initial peace deal in 1993, in bringing the Oslo process to a successful conclusion..?'
The phrase "Palestinian stabbing attacks and Israeli countermeasures" reiterates the standard version whereby Israel merely reacts to unmotivated violence, but completely omits the context of deepening Israeli occupation and colonisation. Worse still, the implication that Palestinian suicide bombings began in 1993 as an attempt to derail the peace process belies the truth that the first such bombing occurred the following year as revenge for the massacre by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron.
Mr. Weiss claims that "Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza, with the possibility that the unilateral disengagement was only a prelude to a wider move in the West Bank." Had this been the case, Sharon would hardly have relocated these settlers in the West Bank, where their presence was equally illegal (an adjective that the Irish Times consistently refrains from applying to colonial settlements despite their status under the Fourth Geneva Convention).
The reality was stated openly by Sharon's senior adviser Dov Weisglas: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process... The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."
Mark Weiss does the Irish Times readership a disservice by disguising blatant propaganda as objective reporting.
Sincerely -
 Raymond Deane

And then my own missive:

November 6, 2015

Dear Sir

Mark Weiss's article on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (2/11/15) is a disgrace of historical revisionism.

Yitzhak Rabin was no dove. He was responsible in 1948 for the ethnic cleansing of Lydda - according to Benny Morris, the biggest single act of expulsion of Palestinians during the 'birth' of Israel. He was the minister who called for IDF soldiers to use 'force, might and beatings' against unarmed Palestinian protestors during the first Intifada and for the troops to 'break the bones' of the protestors. He was a very reluctant participant in the deeply flawed Oslo process. Palestinian suicide bombings did not start with the September 1993 agreements, but only the following year after the massacre by Baruch Goldstein of 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Mr Weiss's subsequent account of the second Intifada and the efforts of Israeli prime ministers to make peace is equally flawed. It was the 'dovish' Barak, after all, who permitted Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 - the true start of the second Intifada. All the prime ministers Mr Weiss names permitted ongoing settlement expansion and construction - all of it illegal and rejected by the international community and even the United States. Israel did not disengage from Gaza with a view to a further disengagement from the West Bank - Sharon said clearly at the time that the withdrawal would (and did) reinforce deeper settlement in the West Bank.

Mr Weiss's article is steeped in bad faith, and insults his readers' intelligence.

yours sincerely

Conor McCarthy

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Politics and Vision

Sheldon Wolin, who died on October 21 last at the age of 93, was probably the most distinguished and perhaps brilliant American political philosopher of the last several decades.  A more radical figure than John Rawls, Wolin was the author of various books, including studies of Hobbes and Tocqueville, and a monumental interpretative history of political theory, Politics and Vision.  The roster of political thinkers who trained with him is a listing of the most talented American political philosophers active today - Wendy Brown, Cornel West, Dana Villa, Uday Mehta.  The founder of the 'Berkeley School' of political thought in the 1960s, Wolin was opposed both to behaviourism and to the regnant conservative and unhistorical approach of Leo Strauss.  Wolin was not merely an ivory-tower academic: he produced a radical critique of the Bush regime (held by writers such Shadia Drury to have been influenced by Straussian thought and themes) in 2003, accusing it of an 'inverted totalitarianism'.  Steel was never wanting in Sheldon Wolin: would we had more like him.

Here is Corey Robin remembering him on the Jacobin website:

The Theorist Who Reached Across Time



Machtpolitik in Syria

Russia has now intervened decisively in the Syrian war.  Its airpower, and possibly troops or advisors on the ground, are shifting the balance of power in the struggle between the Bashar al-Assad regime, and its mostly Islamist opponents.  Informed opinion in the West is doing a lot of huffing and puffing about Russian support for a ghastly regime.   While this is true, the hyperventilation masks the fact that the Western campaign of airstrikes on ISIS has mostly been a failure, and probably is more important for making Western politicians and states feel better about themselves, than about doing much to help Syrian civilians or liberals.

Patrick Cockburn has featured several times on this blog.  The younger brother of Alexander Cockburn, and the most distinguished Western Middle East correspondent now writing (rather less of an egomaniac, and rather more reflective than, Robert Fisk), Cockburn has written three books about Iraq, and has been sharper than almost all of his peers about the rise of the newest generation of Islamist radicals in the wreckage of western Iraq and in Syria.  His recent book The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution is an excellent account of the recent history of these ruined countries.   Here he is on Syria, again in the LRB:

Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria



Shaking Off

Reportage of the current violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is mostly about local details.  It tends to be slanted, as ever: two weeks ago, RTE news was talking of how Israelis had been 'brutally murdered', while Palestinians appeared merely to have 'died'.

There is much talk these days about the unrest, which has been occasioned by Israeli moves to regulate access to the Haram al-Sharif, as part of the wider battle to control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, of a 'third Intifada'.   Here is Nathan Thrall on the London Review of Books giving some clarity to the situation, and explaining the wider picture:

Nathan Thrall: Israel’s Allies