Q/A on Palestine

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

Q: Didn’t Hamas start this fighting by provoking Israel?

A: According to this interpretation of events: 1. Palestinians killed Israeli teens -> 2. Israel responded -> 3. Hamas began rocket fire -> 4. Israel attacked Gaza.

A longer cycle. The first problem with this sequence is that if you go a little further back, you find further provocations and attacks by Israel, further responses by Palestinians, and so on, going back decades. For example, on May 15, 2014, Israeli soldiers murdered two Palestinian teens in Beitunia, for no apparent reason (see: http://electronicintifada.net/tags/beitunia-killings). Even if you see the conflict as a ‘cycle of violence’, the primary responsibility lies with the more powerful party, since it is the more powerful party that will determine the course of both war and peace in any ‘cycle’. Israel is by far the more powerful party. The question of ‘who started it’ is really a question about who is responsible. Israel can stop this massacre at any moment.

Ilan Pappe wrote recently that “The only chance for a successful struggle against Zionism in Palestine is the one based on a human and civil rights agenda that does not differentiate between one violation and the other and yet identifies clearly the victim and the victimizers.”

Revenge does not apply to innocents. But the second problem is more important. It is immoral to see the killings of the Israeli teens as a ‘response’ to, or ‘revenge’ for, the killings of the Palestinian teens in May. It is also immoral to see the torture and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers as a ‘response’ to the killings of the teens. The only acceptable moral response to crimes like murder is to bring the individuals responsible to justice. Justice, according to the law, does not allow revenge against other people.

The Reordering of Iraq and Syria

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24.

How far back do we look to understand the breakup of Iraq and the declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 29, 2014 of a caliphate?

Do we start 11 years ago, in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq (in the operation called Operation Iraqi Freedom), occupied it, put Nouri al-Maliki’s government in power, and has supported it since?

Or do we need to start a decade earlier? The 2003 invasion was preceded by a 13-year regime of sanctions, starting in 1990/1, and periodic bombing that prevented Iraq’s economy from functioning, or developing. And the sanctions regime was preceded by a devastating bombing and invasion conducted by the US in 1990/1, Gulf War I (called by the US Operation Desert Storm). The death toll of Gulf War I and the sanctions is at least in the hundreds of thousands; The toll of Gulf War II and the occupation is estimated to be close to one million.

But let’s not forget that the 1990/1 Gulf War I, conducted by US President Bush I, came just two years after the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in each country (by conservative estimates) and devastated both.

Or, does it go even further back, to the post-WWI arrangements that imposed artificial, colonial boundaries on the countries of the region?

Not all of the blame for Iraq’s thirty years of war can be blamed on the US, or the West. Yes, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the war on Iran’s then-new regime in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. Yes, the US conducted a multi-decade assault on Iraq starting in 1990. Yes, after the 2003 occupation, the US reorganized Iraq and its oil industry for its own ends. In spite of all that, much of what is happening in Iraq today are unintended consequences, rather than planned or anticipated consequences, of US actions.

Egypt's Gulag

On Saturday June 21, an Egyptian judge confirmed 183 death sentences for what are called, in the BBC story, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them are, no doubt, Brotherhood supporters - until last year's military coup, the Brotherhood was a legal political party and, indeed, the governing party. Since the coup, the Brotherhood has become illegal, its leaders imprisoned. In April, when the initial death sentence was passed on 683 defendants, the brotherhood became the subject of one of the largest mass death sentences in Egypt's recent history. If these death sentences are carried out, they will constitute a major massacre - the largest, perhaps, since the government's massacre of protesters in August 2013, which, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, had a death toll of over 600 people.

The Brotherhood is not the government's only target, of course. Civil society activists, the force that started the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square years ago, have been persecuted continuously by governments. One such activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced in absentia to a 15 year sentence.

And then, there is the crime of journalism. Al Jazeera journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to 7 years in jail today. What did they do? They "provided a platform" for the Brotherhood. A journalist who did not quote Brotherhood people in a story about Egyptian politics would be irresponsible. But being a responsible journalist in Egypt apparently is punishable with 7 years in prison.

Another Canadian, Khaled al-Qazzaz, was a member of the ousted Brotherhood-led government before the coup last year. In jail since last year, al-Qazzaz's court date has been moved to tomorrow (June 24).

The Western response has been ambivalent. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences of the Al-Jazeera journalists "chilling and draconian". The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called them "obscene and a travesty of justice." Canada's Minister, Lynne Yelich, called on Egypt to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists.

I am not a turnout

An interesting couple of weeks. A friend of mine told me about the Ear to the Ground Project, which is a kind of state of the left in the US. Another friend set me to read Myles Horton and Paolo Freire's "We Make the Road By Walking", which includes many interesting things about the Highlander Center's kind of education and also of Freire's methods of education.

Before that I was reading a lot of Alfie Kohn, including his new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and thinking about the constructivist theory of learning.

It got me thinking about some of the more ritualized aspects of left events, at least in my city. The format for most events is borrowed from the academic conference genre: a panel of experts presents a paper to an audience. The trouble is that when this panel takes place as a one-off event, it's not the right genre. At an academic conference, the audience is also all academics, most of whom are presenting papers on some other panel. Now, there are certainly questions about the value of academic conferences, although I think there are aspects of them that are justifiable. But there would be many more questions about the value of left events that are modeled on academic conferences. Consider: over the course of an entire conference, roughly everyone, or at least a large number of people, at the conference would have spoken, at least a bit, and hopefully had some discussion and feedback about their ideas, and also been able to discuss and think about the ideas others presented. At a one-off panel discussion, this isn't the case.

But maybe it could be? What if we had events which, even if they were one-off, were events where everybody both talked and listened. Maybe they could be mini-conferences, where people worked on some common document or piece, which would stand as a record of the event. What if these were the main type of events, with one-off panels as the exception to the rule?

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The invisible assumptions of charity driven development: reading Bill and Melinda Gates's 2014 letter

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter for 2014 a few months ago. It was devoted to dispelling three common myths, which they argue, block progress for the poor.

1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor.
2. Foreign aid is a waste.
3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation.

These myths are indeed myths, and the Gateses are right to try to dispel them. It is also nice to see the Gateses sharing to their audience some important facts that they would have otherwise had to turn to some more radical scholars, to find. Myths #1 and #2, for example, was nicely addressed in 2002 by economist Ha-Joon Chang in Kicking Away the Ladder (although reading any number of the Asian, African, and Latin American nationalists from the 1940s to the 1960s or so might also have done the trick). For Myth #3, we could go back to Betsy Hartmann's 1987 book, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (I picked it up after reading an article by Hartmann in 2000 called Cross-Dressing Malthus).

But the main point I wanted to make in this blog is one I made a few years ago here about philanthrocapitalism. That is, that the solutions for the world's problems aren't going to come from billionaires, and the billionaires know it. Bill and Melinda admit it, in a low-key way, in their letter, with an extended discussion of government aid:

"When pollsters ask Americans what share of the budget goes to aid, the average response is “25 percent.” When asked how much the government should spend, people tend to say “10 percent.” I suspect you would get similar results in the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere...Here are the actual numbers. For Norway, the most generous nation in the world, it’s less than 3 percent. For the United States, it’s less than 1 percent."

What billionaires can do is tiny compared to what governments can do. In their letter, Bill and Melinda are trying to do what anyone can: try to convince others of their arguments in favour of policies they think would help. That is clear from the content of their letter and the nature of their arguments. Why would they do that, if governments didn't matter?

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Reading the Manifesto for Social Materialist Psychology

A little while after my Ossington Circle interview with author Paul Moloney, I was sent (by Paul) the Midlands Psychology Group Manifesto for a Social-Materialist Psychology of Distress. It's an unadorned, long, well-written text that is full of important insights. I appreciate it as someone who is trying to understand "the system" and how it impacts people, and how we could help one another first to survive in the unequal and often violent society we live in, and how we could try to make change. I am going to go through the manifesto a bit here.

The manifesto is arguing against "most psychology", which it describes as "individual and idealist". By contrast, the manifesto is "social materialist". To the manifesto, "individuals exist, but their experiences are thoroughly social, at the very same time as they are singular and personal. And cognitions occur, but their relation to the material world is neither determinate nor arbitrary."

An important consequence of the social materialist approach is that it argues "distress arises from the outside inwards", it is "not the consequence of inner flaws or weaknesses". While "all mainstream approaches to ‘therapy’ locate the origin of psychological difficulty within the individual, usually as some kind of idiosyncracy of past experience." The explanation of why some individuals succumb to distress while others can withstand it is, in the social materialist school of thought, quite simple. It is due to the "embodied advantages someone has acquired over time from the social/material environment". Understanding distress, like understanding survival, is done best by looking from the outside in - at what happened to the individual in society. Hence, trauma, inequality, and other social realities are causes of distress.

The manifesto attacks psychiatric diagnosis as a "quaint notion that distress can be neatly partitioned into robust categories", which "reflects the mistaken belief that it is caused by organic diseases or impairments." Understand distress as social and material, and the categories fall apart, as in diagnostic failure:

Ali Mustafa

I met Ali Mustafa a long time ago, when he was one of the younger activists in Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). I was not so old as I am now but Ali's energy and anger made me feel my age then.

Ali was no single-issue activist. He spent a summer working (as an intern I think) with the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, a movement of landless peasants. That was how he did things. He wanted to go, be in it.

He was no hotel journalist. When he went to Palestine and Egypt and to Syria, he lived with the people, shared their risks, faced whatever they faced.

I didn't always get to meet him after his tours when he'd come back to Toronto, but I did quite a few times. We would talk and argue over details, facts, doctrine ("Is what's happening in Egypt really a *revolution*?" - Ali thought yes, and so did I, for the record).

He was a journalist in the sense that he went there, wherever there was, and wrote and documented, and photographed. But he was not a journalist in any of the bad ways. There was nothing careerist about him. He never pretended at any false objectivity - he was a people's journalist and he believed in their struggles. Pretty much everything I ever saw him do, he did with this motivation. He never put himself above the people he was writing about. He put himself with them, instead.

When I was Ali's age, I think I had a lot more help and support doing the kinds of things I did than he had doing what he did. I really wish more people could have seen his work, and I wish he could have been around some more decades to do more of it.

Ali Mustafa (twitter handle @_fbtm blog http://frombeyondthemargins.blogspot.com) was a Canadian freelance journalist and activist. He died with 7 Syrians in an airstrike by the Assad government in the Hadariya neighbourhood of Aleppo on March 9, 2014.

Ali was pretty prolific. Here's a small sample of Ali's writing from his blog:

Oct 31, 2013: Reporting from the Inside - Ali interviewed by Stefan Christoff, a very nuanced and well-informed example of Ali's type of people's journalism, about Syria.

March 3, 2013: The Ultras and the Eegyptian Revolution - Ali interviewed by Left Hook. Ali's take on the Egyptian Revolution.

A short course on development in "Post-conflict" Congo. A Radical Teacher article.

Podur, J. (2014). A Short Course on Development in “Post-conflict” Congo. Radical Teacher, 98, 52-57. doi:10.5195/rt.2014.70

This article, published in the journal Radical Teacher, is about higher education in the eastern DR Congo, based on my experience teaching a course at the Universite Evangelique en Afrique (UEA) in Bukavu in 2011.

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Haiti: plans for a 2010 coup - CEPR interview with Seitenfus

With an attempted coup underway in Venezuela, those of us who studied the 2004 Haiti coup are looking back at Haiti 10 years ago and being reminded of the parallels. Actually, I wrote about the Venezuela coup of 2002, which followed a similar playbook to the coup attempt currently underway.

I write about a lot of different countries and a lot of different political situations, and people have implied to me that it is impossible for anyone to be knowledgeable about so many different contexts. It seems to me though that in many of these situations, the same external actors are intervening (for example, the US and other Western countries), and they have a limited number of ways of conducting intervention. There's some kind of a playbook out there, and for people who are concerned about development or democracy or freedom in the poor countries, there is no way to avoid trying to understand what is in that playbook of intervention. That's why I wrote Haiti's New Dictatorship, and why I really liked Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood. I think of both books as an attempt to understand the way external power operated to destroy the sovereignty of a country - in this case, Haiti. Peter showed how it was done, and I tried to focus on the post-coup results.

One of the strongest moral voices against coups in Latin America for the past decade and a half has been, and you wouldn't know it from the name, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Their name only covers one aspect of their organization's personality - the fact that they are extraordinary researchers and that they do their homework. Their name doesn't cover the fact that they are a strong voice of principle, when the media are full of murky justifications for coups and violence, and murky accusations of violence against targeted enemies. They have been very strong on Venezuela and on Haiti.

The Ossington Circle: Episode 5, Eva Bartlett on Gaza in Crisis

The Ossington Circle is an internet talk show hosted by Justin Podur in Toronto. In this episode, I talk to Eva Bartlett, who has spent a good portion of the past few years in Gaza. She talks about the tunnels, agriculture, fishery, all of the impacts of Israel's comprehensive siege against the Palestinian population of 1.7 million people. See her on speaking tour in February and March of 2014.