Frontiers and Ghettos (James Ron) and a little more on Coloroso

So, today as promised a little discussion of James Ron’s book, “Frontiers and Ghettos”. The book is a comparison of state violence by Serbia in the 1990s and Israel in the 1980s. His argument is that the institutional context (whether the area is a ‘frontier’, where state authority is less intense or disputed, or a ‘ghetto’, where states have uncontested and intense control over people’s lives, what he calls ‘infrastructural control’) has an influence over the intensity of violence states wield. He compares the way Serbia behaved in Bosnia, its frontier, with Muslim-majority areas in Serbia proper, which were ghettos. He acknowledges that Muslims in Serbia proper did not experience wonderful conditions, but shows that the violence unleashed on Bosnia was far worse. Similarly, the things Israel did in Lebanon (frontier) in the 1980s were far more brutal than what Israel did in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza (ghettos), despite the brutality with which the first Palestinian intifada of 1987-9 was crushed.

Overall I found the analysis fascinating and the comparison of Serbia and Israel a very clever one. Given yesterday’s discussion of the blind spots of someone like Barbara Coloroso, who I don’t think would be able to make such a comparison, it’s refreshing to see someone like Ron, who’s a former Human Rights Watch investigator and a McGill academic, make these kinds of connections. He also takes the analysis closer to the present with Israel/Palestine, arguing that the second Intifada has seen the Occupied Territories become a kind of semi-frontier, where Israel unleashes horrific violence while also having extensive control. I believed, and wrote at the time of the Gaza ‘disengagement’, that the idea behind it was to do just that, to turn Gaza into a “frontier” (I didn’t have Ron’s language at the time but if you read what I wrote you’ll see that’s more or less what I was saying) so that Israel could unleash horrific, frontier-level violence on its people. That is, of course, what is happening now. Which brings us back to Coloroso, but let me say one last thing about Ron’s book before we go there. Towards the end Ron also asks if Palestinians in the WB/Gaza could take advantage of their ghetto status to wage a civil rights struggle, a struggle against apartheid and for democracy, rather than a two-state struggle which would simply turn the territories into a frontier targeted for destruction. He then dismisses this possibility because neither Palestinians nor Israelis want it (did white South Africans want apartheid to end?) and ends his book by saying perhaps Israel will one day just decide on ethnic cleansing. Two comments here. First, I don’t think the anti-apartheid struggle can be so quickly dismissed any more. Saying Israel won’t go for it is a capitulation to Israel’s racism, and of course our own racism and contempt for Palestinians, which, if we or Israelis can’t overcome, we’re all doomed anyway. Certainly no decent two-state settlement can occur if we all continue to sink into the ever lower levels of depravity and racism into which we are sinking. And second, it’s worth remembering that history won’t end with a second round of ethnic cleansing, any more than history ended in 1948 with the first round of ethnic cleansing. That doesn’t mean everything shouldn’t be done by people of conscience to try to avert that outcome. It might help avoid that outcome, however, if the racist planners recognized that ethnic cleansing is not a panacea even for their own plans and dreams of solving the “demographic problem”. Instead, it will just add one more atrocity, one more massive refugee population, one more set of implacable enemies and devastated human beings with less and less to lose.

And now back to Barbara. Barbara differentiates between wars and genocides, and uses analogies for both. Wars are like sibling rivalries. In sibling rivalry, negotiation and learning to live together, conflict resolution are the way to solve conflicts. And sibling rivalry on a mass level is war. Solutions to sibling rivalry are like solutions to war. But bullying is different. It has perpetrators and victims and bystanders. It is characterized by contempt and hatred and a massive power imbalance. Bullying on a mass level is genocide.

This made me realize that the metaphors people have about conflicts are part of why they can’t think clearly about them. How many people think of the Israel/Palestine conflict as sibling rivalry, rather than bullying? Probably most. And that impedes understanding, has them looking for negotiated solutions rather than ways to stop the bully and stop being bystanders to the bullying. Same with the Iraq war. Or the Vietnam war. Notice they’re all called wars? When they’re really not wars at all.

Next up, either Alfie and a tour through questions of motivation and rewards, or Alice and a tour of trauma and its effects.

Bullies, Bystanders, Barbara Coloroso… and blind spots

I’ve been reading a fair bit that isn’t directly relevant to current events or the kind of politics that I am usually involved in – namely, psychology and alternative education stuff. One important author I want to talk about a bit here is Alice Miller. Another is Alfie Kohn. I’ve done a few waves of this sort of reading. I find it really depends on the timing, how insightful or useful I find the stuff. Anyway I think Miller and Kohn both deserve more in-depth reviews. Today though I want to say a few quick words about Barbara Coloroso, who is an author on bullying. I was given her book, “Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide”. She discusses mostly the Nazi holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, some of the Armenian genocide, and analyzes it in terms of bully, bullied, and bystander. These categories have some explanatory power – bullying is based on contempt and lack of empathy, she says, and taken to its extreme, it is genocide. It’s a reasonable set of categories she applies, but I think Miller’s work on the psychology of genocidal leaders and societies goes much deeper and is much more insightful (again, more later).

What upset me about Coloroso’s book, though, is what you might guess from an American author writing about genocide. She talks about bullying, contempt, racism, bystanders, apathy, sexual violence, and how all these lead to genocide. She presents a list of genocides in the first few pages of her book. To her credit, the number one and two genocides are those of the Americas – North and South America. But not to her credit, America’s Vietnam and Iraq massacres of millions of people do not appear. No Congo. No East Timor. No Guatemala. And, even though the body counts are large enough to meet her criteria (she has genocides of 10,000 and 30,000 – by Australia and South Africa, both of which are responsible for much larger numbers of deaths than this), no Palestine. The problem with this is, of course, that in Coloroso’s own scheme, it makes her a bystander to the kind of genocidal bullying she critiques, and a bystander in the very conflicts where her voice, her profile, and her analysis could make such a very huge difference. What if someone did weave a story about genocides like Barbara does, and seamlessly include those that the US and its allies (Israel, for example, or even Canada with its only-recently-closed residential schools and ongoing dispossession) are responsible for? Would it not help people see these things more clearly? Or would Barbara simply be shut out, like everyone who tries to actually be consistent about matters of bullying or genocide? And yet, Barbara herself would teach us that not wanting to be shut out is not enough to excuse a bystander. Stephen Lewis, who I also respect a lot, but who also chooses his battles carefully, says about Coloroso that “Nothing escapes the unsparing force of her intellect, the gentle generosity of her soul, and her passion to shape a better world.”

Nothing, that is, except the US or Israel’s bullying and genocidal programs. Still, it is worthwhile material for those who can take it to its logical conclusions and apply it more consistently than Barbara does.

Remind me also to discuss James Ron’s “Frontiers and Ghettos”, recommended to me by Rahul.