War is still not the answer: Antiwar sentiment may mostly have evaporated, but war is as horrible as ever

The unelected Saudi monarchy began the year by executing 47 people. It continues to bomb hospitals, homes, and civilians in Yemen as it has done for nearly a year. In October of last year, a few weeks before the election, the Turkish state almost certainly arranged bombings in Ankara that killed more than one hundred people at a peace demonstration. The ruling party won the election, have now accelerated their own war on the Kurdish population of their country, and are targeting anti-war academics. Egypt’s current dictatorship came to power in a coup and cemented its power with a major massacre in August of 2013. Israel has spent the months since October extrajudicially executing Palestinians. When the Swedish Foreign Minister mentioned the possibility of investigating these executions, a former educational secretary in Israel suggested that the Swedish Foreign Minister should be assassinated.

All of this is to say, a quick regional roundup of very recent atrocities suggests that there are few governments in the region that have not lost the moral authority to govern. If Syria’s dictator, Assad, must go, perhaps these other governments must, as well.

But how? What if, in a moment of republicanism, the US decided on regime change in the Saudi Kingdom? What if in a fit of sympathy for the Kurds, Washington were to draw up a plan to bomb Turkey from the air until it withdrew from the Kurdish areas? Or to bomb Cairo, until Sisi resigned and elections were held? Or to bomb Israel until it ended the occupation of Palestinian lands?

Or, if they wanted to avoid open warfare, perhaps Washington could sponsor some republican armed groups in Saudi Arabia, provide advanced weapons and conduct assassinations on behalf of the Kurds and the Palestinians, arm and train the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all in the name of helping the oppressed?

All of these would be horrible ideas, with horrible outcomes. The result would be tremendous death and suffering, and the intended beneficiaries of these policies, the ordinary people in these countries, would suffer the most. What’s more, it’s not clear – whatever the moral authority of the targeted regimes – that the US (or any other government) has the moral authority to go around deciding, through violence, who governs. Instead, as painful and long as the road to liberation is, it is the task of the oppressed people in the region to liberate themselves from dictatorship and occupation. What outsiders in the West can offer is not war, but solidarity – often in the form of stopping the West from helping (or being) the oppressors.

This used to be somewhat widely understood. After World War II, a body of international law was created and one of the intentions motivating it was to prevent war. International aggression was deemed the supreme crime of WWII, the crime from which all the other crimes flowed. When the US went to war in Vietnam, the antiwar movement spelled out a series of arguments, none of which depended on the angelic nature of the Vietnamese communists that the US was fighting or the Soviet Union that was supporting them. Those arguments included legal (international law), moral (aggression was the wrong means, for the wrong ends, and would cause harm to people), and practical (war would be harmful to US interests, create more enemies, be costly in economic terms and in lives). The US ruling class blamed the antiwar movement for a “Vietnam Syndrome” that constrained the US’s ability to fight wars.

Antiwar arguments held through the 1980s, through decades of covert operations. They were present in 1990/1 when the US first attacked Iraq. There were cracks in the antiwar bloc in 1999, when the US went to war in Kosovo, but among leftists, the antiwar idea remained strong. Even in 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, the opponents of war held to all three lines of argumentation – legal, moral, and practical, despite the horrible nature of the Afghanistan’s Taliban government that was targeted by the US. The movement peaked in 2003, in the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with millions of people in the streets and the declaration that global public opinion was a second superpower – again, despite the horrible dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Antiwar arguments continued to be made in spite of the nature of the governments targeted. Antiwar movements sought alternatives to aggression, especially the use of international law and diplomacy. They also made a deeper critique of the arms industry and war profiteering, of the power politics of regime change, of racism and indifference to the lives of people bombed, and of war propaganda and deception.

In 2011, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya faced no meaningful antiwar opposition. Leftists split like they hadn’t in decades over a question that had not arisen even with governments at least as bad or worse than Gaddafi’s (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban) by human rights measures. Hillary Clinton was able was able to quote Julius Caesar (who was writing about a country that his Roman army destroyed and annexed using genocidal warfare, including kidnapping and publicly murdering the opposing general at a parade) and say “we came, we saw, he died”, as a kind of joke. The moves from the beginning of the civil war to the establishment of a no-fly zone to regime change and Gaddafi’s lynching all proceeded with almost no debate or dissent and with amazing speed. A “Libya Cure” was found to the “Vietnam Syndrome”.

Today, the Syria civil war rages with about 10 countries participating, some of whom, including the US, are fighting on both (or perhaps more accurately multiple) sides. The number of people in the West – including leftists – who are arguing that war is not the answer, is almost zero. The number of people – again including leftists – who see war as the answer if it can meet this or that imaginary criterion is much higher. People who oppose regime change through war are ridiculed as naive or unprincipled.

But are they (we) ridiculous? Has the record of war really changed so much since 2011? Did Libya really disprove the many arguments that antiwar movements used to hold to? Is Syria a case of the success of war as a strategy for accomplishing something? Something other than more war and more destruction?

Here are some easy predictions: In the years ahead, we are promised austerity, poverty, violence, and ecological catastrophe. If societies want to deal with any of these problems, they will also have to deal with the problem of war, because through all this, we will also have war. As a result, people will need to develop antiwar movements. The arguments that those movements will rely on will be the same ones that are mocked today, the very same ones that used to be more widely accepted, but have somehow been forgotten.

First published at TeleSUR English Jan 28, 2016

Vaccinations and the war on science: Donald Trump’s championing of the “anti-vaxer” cause takes advantage of scientific illiteracy

Science is a massive, ongoing human undertaking. It is a creative endeavour: the greatest scientific discoveries have involved wild guesses and hypotheses. But it also depends on rigor, self-criticism, and self-correction. The wild guesses must be tested against evidence. Science is the most dynamic of endeavours: the accepted claims of today may be overturned tomorrow. Ambitious scientists dream of changing our understanding of the world.

So how can someone make decisions that rely on science? If science is always changing, if claims are being tested and overturned, if tomorrow’s discovery could change our whole way of looking at things, why should we believe anything scientists say today? How can a creative and dynamic endeavour become a source of legitimate authority to be followed? Most of us are not going to collect and analyze atmospheric data to test whether burning fossil fuels causes climate change, but we have to decide whether to press for reduced emissions based on what scientists are saying.

This decision of the ordinary person to trust scientific authority is made even more difficult because scientific authority can be abused, and has been abused in the past. Take scientific authority in the area of mental illness. The manual of mental illness produced by the American Psychiatric Association is the famous DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We are currently (as of 2013) on the DSM-V. Prior to a change made in the DSM-II in 1973, ‘homosexuality’ was defined as a mental illness. Before the DSMs, in the 19th century, an American physician defined ‘drapetomania’: a mental illness that caused African-American slaves to try to escape. Diagnoses of ‘hysteria’, ‘frigidity’, and many others were used to control women since the 19th century. Psychologist Bruce Levine has argued that diagnoses of ADHD and ODD are similar tools that “psychopathologize” and “medicate” people who are “natural anti-authoritarians”, “before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.”

In this fraught space of mental illness, where scientific authority has been abused and politicized and where scientific understanding is desperately needed, a debate on the causes of autism is taking place in a way that is harmful to public health. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in the DSM, and diagnoses of autism have been going up and up. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows a prevalence of 6.7 per thousand in 2000 and 14.7 per thousand in 2010. The simplest explanation for this huge increase turns out to be the most likely: that it is the result of changes in the way autism is diagnosed (Science for discussion of the US, Forbes for discussion of a study from Denmark).

Like so much in the field of mental illness, autism is very poorly understood. The diagnosis is based on a checklist of behaviors. Psychologist Enrico Gnaulati wrote sensitively in Salon about a case of “overdiagnosis”, in which a “brainy, introverted” boy was incorrectly diagnosed with autism – something Gnaulati believes is happening all the time.

The solution to the problems caused by trying to treat illnesses we don’t understand is to try to improve our understanding. The discovery of the “overdiagnosis” issue with regards to autism, for example, came from the scientific community. Bruce Levine’s critique of the overdiagnosis of ADHD and ODD is also one grounded in scientific principles. A major recent study has linked antidepressant drugs in pregnancy to increased risk of autism. The way to correct scientific errors, in other words, is to do better science.

But the self-correcting mechanisms of science are slow. While scientists struggle for answers, suffering people have difficulty waiting. They turn to online communities that do not use the methods of science, communities that attack the failures of scientific authority and the limitations of scientific knowledge. A large community has arisen that claims a connection between vaccinations for preventable diseases and autism. The community has grown so large and has convinced enough parents not to vaccinate their kids that public health impacts are beginning to be felt and preventable diseases may be making a comeback. It has seized on a study from the 1990s that found a correlation in a small sample group, a study whose conclusions were later overturned by massive studies of huge sample groups. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination, or “anti-vaxer” movement, was not placated by scientific self-correction. With celebrity endorsements and a genuine online community, the anti-vaxers have become so numerous that they are being courted by politicians, most famously Donald Trump.

Trump’s rise has been characterized by the willingness to say ever more outrageous things. The Republican debates have seen candidates compete to see who is most willing to diverge from scientific and moral principles, and who is willing to diverge the furthest. With the anti-vaxer claims, Trump is taking advantage of scientific illiteracy.

Scientists are not without blame in all this. Whenever scientists fail to explain science in simple language, whenever scientists rely on authority rather than trusting people to understand scientific argument and evidence, they create space for people like Trump. People need to feel empowered, like science is something that belongs to them, not something that is done to them by alien creatures in mysterious laboratories. In the case of vaccines and many others, popular science, and going further, people’s science, are actually matters of life and death. The only long-term protection against Trump and pseudo-science on the one hand, and illegitimate scientific authority (whether it’s “drapetomania” or diagnosing anti-authoritarians with ODD) on the other, is if ordinary people are able to reach an understanding not just of specific scientific claims, but of how to think scientifically. It’s a huge responsibility for proponents of science. If we’re not up to the task, the Trumps of the world will be waiting.

First published TeleSUR English January 12, 2016